Skywatch: The great late June sky show

If you’re a night owl, this is the perfect time of year for you, as stargazing has now become a late-night delight! Catch an afternoon nap, grab a lawn chair, and enjoy the show!

The transition in the night sky is just about complete. The stars and constellations of winter are pretty much gone from our skies, setting well before the sun. Among the few bright winter stars left are Castor and Pollux, in the constellation Gemini the Twins. You can see them side by side in the low west-northwestern sky. A little higher above the western horizon, look for a right-leaning backward question mark. That question mark is the chest and head of the spring constellation Leo the Lion, with the bright star Regulus at the bottom of the question mark, marking the lion’s heart.

(Mike Lynch)

Face north and lie back on a lawn chair, and you’ll easily see the nearly upside-down Big Dipper almost overhead. The Big Dipper isn’t an official constellation, but it does outline the rear end and tail of Ursa Major, or the Big Bear. Just below is the fainter Little Dipper, standing sideways on its handle with Polaris, the North Star, at the end of the handle. The Little Dipper doubles as the actual constellation Ursa Minor, or Little Bear.

You’ll see a bright orange star not far from the end of the Big Dipper’s handle. That’s Arcturus, the brightest star in the evening sky this month, more than 20 times the diameter of our sun and around 37 light-years away. The light we see from Arcturus tonight left that star in 1985 when the first “Back to the Future” movie debuted. Arcturus is the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the Herdsman, which really looks more like a giant nocturnal kite with Arcturus at the end of the tail.

Over in the east, summer stars are making their initial evening appearance. Leading the way is Vega, the brightest star in Lyra the Harp. To the lower left of Vega is Deneb, the brightest shiner in Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the “Northern Cross,” rising sideways in the east. Deneb is an enormous star that lies at the head of the cross and is at least 1,400 light-years from Earth, and maybe a lot farther.

The full moon in June will officially be on the 14th. It’s often referred to as the Strawberry Moon in Native American culture, and it’s also called the Rose Moon and the Honey Moon, along with other monikers. This month, the full moon is considered a supermoon because it’s physically much closer to Earth than average, and it may appear a little larger in the sky on average. This time of year you’ll notice that the full moon this month takes a very low arc across the sky from rising to setting. It’s nearly mirroring the path taken by the sun on the first day of winter.

Speaking of seasons, the summer solstice is on Tuesday, June 21, with the sun directly overhead at noon along the Tropic of Cancer. It’s the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and the shortest night of the year. See if you can pull an all-nighter under the stars!

The early evening planet drought continues this month, but after midnight planets start rising one by one. The first one to appear is the ringed wonder of our solar system. Saturn rises in the southeast, appearing as a moderately bright star after 2 a.m. in early June and a little after midnight later in the month. You can see Saturn’s ring system and maybe a few of its brighter moons even with a small telescope. By mid-August Saturn will be much brighter and will rise well before midnight for a prime-time late summer performance.

Meanwhile, this weekend and early next week, check out the Jupiter-Mars celestial hugging in the early morning twilight sky!

(Mike Lynch)

Mars will be passing just below the much brighter planet Jupiter in the low southeastern sky, best seen in the early stages of twilight. Mars and Jupiter will be separated by less than a degree, appearing almost to touch each other. They’re actually a long way from each other, but they’re nearly in the same line of sight. Check out Mars and Jupiter, a great way to start the day!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at [email protected]

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