June Stargazing…The Late Show Worth Staying Up For!
We’re into the shortest nights of the year now so good stargazing can’t really begin until after 10pm, and the show is pretty much over by 4:30am when morning twilight begins. Make sure to get your afternoon nap so you can enjoy nature’s late, late summer star show. Watch the stars of summer on the rise, but prepare for possible hungry mosquitoes, especially around sunset. In most cases the blood suckers back off by midnight, sometimes even sooner.
The first bright stars that pop out in the evening twilight are actually the planets Venus and Jupiter. Venus absolutely dominates the low western sky and through a small telescope it appears oval shaped and during the next few weeks it’ll “shrink”and appear as a half moon. Because Venus’s orbit around the sun lies within Earth’s orbit, Venus goes through shape changes or phases like the moon as the angle between Earth, Venus, and the sun keeps changing. It’s best to view Venus through a telescope in the evening twilight before darkness sets in otherwise its bright glow will really muddy up what you see through the eyepiece.
Jupiter is much more fun to look at in the southeastern sky. With even a decent pair of binoculars or a small telescope you can easily see up to four of its orbiting moons that resemble tiny stars on either side of the planet. You might even see some of Jupiter’s cloud bands stretching across the 88,000 mile-wide planet. The later in the evening you can wait to view Jupiter through a telescope the better you’ll see as it rises farther above the thicker layer of Earth’s atmosphere close to the horizon. Also try to take long continuous views of Jupiter through your telescope so you can use to the light level in the eyepiece field and take advantage of the varying transparency of Earth’s atmosphere.
Later on this month Saturn and Mars will join Venus and Mars in the evening sky. In fact in late July Mars and Earth will be at their closest approach to each other since 2003. Stay tuned to Skywatch for more in the next few weeks.
The transition to summer skies is just about complete. The stars and constellations of winter are pretty much gone from our evening skies, all setting well before the sun. The only bright winter stars left are Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini the Twins; toward the end of evening twilight you can see them side-by-side in the very low northwestern sky.
If you lie back on that reclining lawn chair and look straight overhead toward the zenith you’ll easily see the Big Dipper, and not far from the Dipper’s handle you’ll see a bright orange star. That’s Arcturus, the second brightest star in the sky, which is about 36 light years or 208 trillion miles away. The light that we see tonight from Arcturus, about 25 times the diameter of our sun, left that star when Nixon was our President. Arcturus is also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the hunting farmer, which actually looks more like a giant nocturnal kite with Arcturus at the tail of the kite.
In the low southeast skies is another ruddy star. That’s Antares, a star so big that if you put it in our solar system instead of our sun, its outer edge would reach almost to Jupiter. We’d be somewhere near the inner core of Antares, the star at the heart of the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. Look to the upper right of Antares and you’ll see three stars lined up diagonally that mark the head and stinger of the great sky beast. If you stay up late enough Saturn shows up in low southeast sky just behind Scorpius.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you’re seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org