Happy soon-to-be summer, star gazers! June has a few things going for it; it’s the beginning of summer (officially), we have a lovely new moon, there’s some planet spotting to be done in the early morning; and the combined effects of clear, warm days with lower levels of air pollution gives way to ideal stargazing very, very late in the night.
The 20th of June this year marks the summer solstice, but what is it and why is it significant? The summer solstice marks the longest day of the year – we will enjoy 16 hours and 38 minutes of daylight! This is because the Earth’s axis on this day will be most directly inclined towards the sun, giving the northern hemisphere plenty of sunshine. This does have the knock on effect of limit time for stargazing however we will miss this “quare stretch in the evenings” come winter – so as they say, make hay while the sun shines! From this date on we will see a small decrease in daylight minutes little by little until the winter solstice in December.
Each full moon has a special name and this month is certainly not an exception. The Strawberry Moon in June will be visible tonight (5th June) for all to see! Now, please do not expect a bright red moon in the sky. The Strawberry Moon gets its name as it coincides with strawberry picking season in the United States of America. On mainland Europe it is called The Rose Moon, and further afield it is called The Hot Moon (to signal the soaring summer temperatures).
This moon will be an interesting one as from Europe it will be the latest rising and lowest moon of the year. Our brains perceive things closer to the horizon as much larger than they are in reality so The Strawberry Moon could really be an interesting sight to see! From the UK, the moon will be partially eclipsed as it rises – this effect will not be very noticeable and may only dim it slightly. Any keen astro-photographers should note that to get a nice pinky coloured moon, you should wait for a moonrise or moonset as a closer proximity to the horizon will give way to a warmer tone. Physics is cool like that!
To do any planet spotting this month you will have to set your alarms I’m afraid. However there is one exception that coincides with the Strawberry moon! 30 minutes after sunset on 5th June, looking west and low on the horizon, you may be able to spot Mercury (who we haven’t seen for a while!) lying within the constellation of Gemini. Find the two bright stars marking the heads of the twins, Castor and Pollux, and look slightly to the east and down.
The rest of the planets are for early risers! Venus can be seen before dawn on the 19th and 27th in the east of the sky. Binoculars may be necessary to see through the early morning glare (but please don’t point them at the sun when it rises!).
Mars will be visible through the whole last week of June in the southeast of the sky at an elevation of ~22 degrees. Again though, Mars will only be visible pre-dawn.
Unfortunately the month of June and its lengthy hours of sunlight leave little to be viewed in the night sky. Comet ATLAS and the 4 pieces it has broken into will sadly be blocked from view by sunlight. Equally, no meteor showers are visible this month.
Therefore, perhaps this month we should try to appreciate the simplicity of the circumpolar constellations as they can be seen on any clear night at any time of the year. They endlessly circle the pole star, and are therefore useful for locating it. The circumpolar constellations are Ursa Major the Great Bear, Ursa Minor the Little Bear, Draco the Dragon, Cepheus the King, Cassiopeia the Queen, and the lesser-known Camelopardalis (say that 5 times fast).
Enjoy the sun while it’s out stargazers! Stay safe and see you next month!