Welcome to another edition of the night sky for the month of June! If like me you’re glad to have finally shaken off the coldest of this year’s weather to date -then the thought of some comfortable longer periods of stargazing in balmier temperatures has particular appeal. If on the other hand you’re incredulous that any quality celestial observing can be done over the brighter summer months, then stick around a little longer, for you might be surprised how much of interest there is to see…
Let’s start with the elephant in the room, the fact that the month of June in the Northern hemisphere plays host to the Summer Solstice – the “longest day” and the “shortest night”. So it’s understandable perhaps to presume this month will be a bit of a ‘write off’ as far as all things Space are concerned, but in reality this is not the case because the Solstice is profoundly astronomical. Instead, all we need is a little imagination and an appreciation of what’s going on on a planetary scale. That is, that on the 20th June the invisible ‘pole’ that we refer to running through the centre of the Earth from South to North and that is tilted over by 23.5 degrees, will be aligned in such a way that it will leaning over farthest and most directly toward the Sun on this special day. Oh, and by the way, how can we check this astronomical phenomenon is happening for real? Simply look out for the Sun reaching its highest point from the horizon during its daily arc across the sky. In reality June sees a significant anniversary in the relationship between our planet and it’s parent star, so put this date in your diary and enjoy both the extra-long day and, for once only – the fewest hours of darkness!
This month we also get one of our best looks at an ‘extra’ star pattern in that ‘celestial zoo’ of many animals, zodiac. If Earth’s atmosphere didn’t scatter sunlight across the sky in the way it does during the daytime we would be able to see the stars that are out there in Space and we’d be able to identify the ever-changing background constellations behind the Sun over the course of the year as the Earth hurtles around the Sun. This ever-changing background or ‘path’ of constellations that the Sun travels through over the course of an Earth year is what we know today as the zodiac. The notion of a “zoodiakos” or “animal belt” in Space was instituted by the Babylonians 3000 years ago and since then Earth’s position has altered slightly in relation to the Sun. For this reason, a 13th Zodiac constellation was added in in the 20th Century. The star pattern that has been added in is the constellation of Ophiuchus. We can see Ophiuchus if we face south. He straddles the celestial equator and was associated with the Greek mythical figure Asclepius. Asclepius was the son of the god Apollo and was said to be able to restore people to life with his healing powers. The name Ophiuchus means “Serpent bearer” in ancient Greek as our zodiac character is depicted holding that constellation snake Serpens in the night sky. Although you may be able to see some stars by 11pm, if you’re still feeling wide awake a little later, you’ll probably get your best look at the stars in these two patterns between midnight and 3am, when the sky is a little darker and the constellations are at their highest point, just above the horizon.
As always, that trusted formula of firstly locating the brightest star of the constellation as your marker or anchor before attempting to look for the rest is the best way to see Ophiuchus, especially as many of his stars are dim. The brightest star is known as Alpha Ophiuchi, ‘Cranium’ or Rasalhague which means “head of the serpent charmer”. You’ll be able to find it easily as one of the brightest stars along an imaginary line across the southern part of our night sky between those bright stars Altair (in Aquila), and Arcturus (in Bootes). Rasalhague is a red giant star, in the latter stages of its life. It’s about 1.7 times the size of the Sun and lies 48.6 light years from Earth.
Just as rubbish on Earth can often be recycled to make new objects of value, dust and debris left behind by comets or asteroids can turn into beautiful meteor showers as it burns on its rapid descent through Earth’s atmosphere. So although a brighter night sky and the possible company of a Moon may make meteors seem that bit more elusive during the summer months, keep your eyes peeled in a south-easterly direction particularly on the nights of the 20th and the 27th June as you might just be the lucky observer to catch a glimpse of a celestial visitor from the Ophiuchids or Scutids meteor showers respectively between the hours of 10pm and 4am the next day. As the meteor showers should radiate from either Ophiuchus’ left leg and the neighbouring constellation of Scutum (just beneath Serpen’s tail) you won’t need to be looking too high in the sky to see them.
So as you raise your eyes to the heavens to observe the great sights of the night sky in June, happy hunting and enjoy your interstellar voyage!