June Stargazing...A Late Show
With the summer solstice on June 21st we're looking at the longest days of the year in the northern hemisphere. Unfortunately for stargazers that also means the shortest nights. Itï¿½s now a late show. Get an afternoon nap so you can enjoy the show.
Meanwhile, for about the next ten days June, you may still see Comet Swan hanging barely above the north-northwestern horizon in the early evening toward the end of evening twilight. You may see it with the naked eye as a "fuzzy star" with a tail pointing to the upper right. You might need binoculars or a telescope to spot it though. Twilight will definitely impede it's brightness. Certainly don't expect anything spectacular.
Not far away in the low northwest sky during evening twilight, the tiny planet Mercury will be visible for about the first ten days of June. Even with a telescope you certainly won't see surface details, but what you will see is is that Mercury is crescent-shaped. Mercury, along with the planet Venus, goes through phases just like the moon since they orbit the sun and lie within Earth's orbit. By the way, Venus, which dominated our evening this spring, has left the evening sky and will emerge again in the early morning eastern sky in late June.
We'll have a full moon on officially this Friday but it'll more or less full by Thursday, rising around sunset and taking a low westward arc across the southern sky for the rest of the night. Next week the whitewashing moon will be out of the early evening sky and we'll have darker skies. Then you really start seeing the transition from spring to summer constellations. If you lie back on that reclining lawn chair and look straight overhead toward the zenith you'll easily see the Big Dipper. Not far from the end of the Dipper's handle you'll see a super bright orange star. That's the giant star Arcturus, around 22 million miles in diameter and 37 light-years away or about 210 trillion miles Bootes the hunting farmer, which actually looks more like a giant nocturnal kite. Arcturus is at the tail of the kite.
Over in the eastern skies the stars of summer are making their initial evening appearance. Leading the way is Vega, the brightest star of Lyra the Harp. A little to the lower left of Vega is Deneb, the brightest star of Cygnus the Swan. Within the constellation Cygnus you can easily see the asterism, the "Northern Cross," rising sideways. Deneb lies at the head of the cross and is at least 1500 light-years away, but could be a lot farther!
In the low southeast skies another great summer constellation, Scorpius the scorpion, is on the rise. It's one of those few constellations that really resembles what it's supposed to be. Its brightest star is Antares, marking the heart of the celestial 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. Antares is another massive star, so big that if you put it in our solar system in place of our sun, the Earth would be in the inner core of Antares!
After midnight this month you'll see what I call "cat's eyes" rising in the southeast. The two super-bright side by side stars are actually the largest planets of our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn. They're the closest they've been to each other in the sky in 20 years.
Unless you're a super night owl, you may want to set your alarm very early before morning twilight kicks in to get a better look at Jupiter and Saturn, as they'll be higher in the sky. About an hour before twilight the dynamic duo of our solar system will be perched in the lower south-southwestern sky. Jupiter will be the brighter of the two on the lower left. They're so close to each other it's possible to get both planets in the same field of view with most pairs of binoculars!
Even with binoculars you should be able to resolve the disk of Jupiter, and also easily see up to four of Jupiter's largest moons that resemble faint stars on either side of the planet. With a small to moderate telescope, your view of the giant planets dramatically improves. You'll see at least some of Jupiter's brighter cloud bands and possibly Jupiter's great red spot. You should also see Saturn's ring system much more clearly.
There's another bright "star" you can see to the left of Jupiter and Saturn that has a definite reddish glow to it. That's actually the planet Mars. This coming October Mars will be a little less than 39 million miles away, the closest it will be to Earth until 2035. It should be quite a show.
Enjoy the warmer but shorter nights of June!
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