EYES ON THE NIGHT SKY: JUNE 2018
Welcome to June’s edition of Eyes on the Night Sky. In many areas of the UK, the nights have now become much lighter which makes it difficult for stargazers to view their favourite galaxies, globular clusters and other deep sky objects that require darker nights to see them in their full glory but there is still plenty to see with the eyes, binoculars and telescopes! The lighter nights are due to the Northern Hemisphere inclined towards the Sun due to the axial tilt of the earth. The maximum axial tilt occurs between 20th and 22nd June – this year it falls on 21st June - more commonly known as the Summer Solstice!
The Summer Triangle consists of three bright stars, Deneb, Altair and Vega. They will be high in the sky at around midnight. Vega in the constellation of Lyra is the brightest of the three, followed by Altair in the constellation of Aquila and Deneb in the constellation of Cygnus. Cygnus is easy to spot in the midnight summer sky; look for the bright star Deneb in Cygnus and spot the short neck of the swan asterism and the outstretched wings. Greek mythology tells the story of Phaethon, Helios’ son, who wanted to ride his father’s sun chariot. The young man could not control the sun god’s chariot and therefore was destroyed with a thunderbolt sent by Zeus. The chariot crashed to the earth and Phaethon perished. His friend Cycnus, grieved bitterly, searching the River Eridanus for his bones. The gods felt compassion for Cycnus and turned him into a swan, placing him in the heavens.
During the months of May until early August, look out for a beautiful phenomenon that can be seen with the unaided eye. Noctilucent clouds, although rare, start to be more noticeable during June. Look towards the north an hour or so after sunset for shimmering, gossamer-type cloud formations in the sky. The word ‘Noctilucent’ is Latin for ‘night shining’ and are thought to be made of ice crystals. These clouds are the highest in the Earth’s atmosphere, forming at a staggering 200,000 feet above the earth’s surface. They normally appear silvery in colour but have been known to be blue, or even red!
For those who have binoculars, look for an interesting asterism that looks like a coat hanger! Commonly known as the Coat Hanger Asterism, its official designation is Collinder 399 or Brocchi’s Cluster. Focus your binoculars or small telescope at low power on the star Altair in the constellation of Aquila and slowly scan up until you see an upside-down coat hanger, which sits in between Cygnus and Altair and just to the right and above of the constellation Sagitta. If you would like to see what the asterism looks like, click this spoiler.
An asterism is a pattern of stars that looks like a recognisable shape, but aren’t part of the 88 officially recognised constellations. It doesn’t mean the stars are close in proximity to each other but from our perspective, they appear to be grouped together. From another point in our Galaxy, they will look different, as illustrated in the video below.
The New Moon occurs on 13th June and the Full Moon on 28th June.
*Mars rises at 1.15am at the beginning of the month and at 11.50pm towards the end. In July, the planet will reach opposition, meaning it will reach its closest point to earth. More about that in next month’s article! This month, Mars will rise as high as 15° above the horizon and will gleam in the southern sky like a small and fiery ball of light. At that low position, the planet’s features may not be seen due to atmospheric turbulence but might improve towards the opposition.
Venus makes a beautiful, bright sight, low in the summer evening sky in the North West at around 10.20pm. A small telescope will reveal Venus’s gibbous phase. The waxing crescent Moon and Venus will provide a pleasing conjunction as the Moon passes close to the planet’s left side at 5° on 16th June. The planet sets at 11.40pm at the beginning of the month and 11.15pm towards the end.
On 23rd June, the Moon passes close over the north of Jupiter at 3°. Look out for this conjunction in the southern skies just after sunset. Jupiter is also one of the brightest objects in the summer night sky. It continues to be a fascinating object to study, with its moons dancing around the planet and the exciting glimpses of detail on the gas giant’s surface as the atmosphere calms.
Saturn rises at 11.20pm at the start of the month and 9.20pm towards the end. The rings are well positioned to study. The planet will be at opposition on 27th June.
June may not have dark skies but there is a lot to see: We hope you enjoy the warmer summer evenings and clear skies to you all!
*Planet rise and set times are in Mid Wales and will vary in your own locality.