June stargazing is a great, but late, show

  • By Mike Lynch / Special to The Herald
  • Friday, June 1, 2007 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The summer stargazing show is underway in the Pacific Northwest, but you’ll need that afternoon nap, because it’s not really dark enough to make the stars your old friends until after 10 p.m.

Two bright planets act as bookends in the sky at the end of evening twilight, Venus in the northwest and Jupiter in the southeast. Venus has been literally spotlighting the western sky all spring long, but Jupiter is a newcomer to the early evening sky. Both are very bright for different reasons. Venus, about the size of our Earth, is only about 70 million miles from our world. Certainly that’s one of the reasons it’s such a bright shiner, but its completely cloud covered surface also reflects a lot of sunlight our way, so much so that if you’re really out in the boonies, Venus may even cast faint shadows before it sets below the northwest horizon shortly before midnight.

Through a telescope there isn’t really a whole lot to see of Venus because of the cloud cover, although because its orbit around the sun lies inside Earth’s orbit, Venus goes through phase changes like our moon. Right now Venus appears as a tiny “half moon.”

Jupiter is just about as bright as Venus as it climbs above the southeast horizon after 10 p.m. Jupiter’s a lot farther way than Venus, about 400 million miles distant, but it’s a heck of a lot bigger, more that 88,000 miles in diameter. It’s by far the largest planet in our solar system and is at its closest point to Earth this year, called opposition. I’ll have lot more about Jupiter in next week’s Starwatch.

The planets Saturn and Mercury are also part of June evening skies, but they’re not nearly as bright. Mercury can be seen until about June 10 in the evening twilight. Just look for a faint “star” in the low northwest sky, about 15 to 20 degrees to the lower right of Venus. This is also your last chance to see Saturn decently in the western sky before it slips close to the obscuring horizon. It’s just to the lower right of the left-leaning backward question mark that makes up the chest and head of the constellation Leo.

As far as the constellations, the doldrums of the spring are definitely over, especially in the eastern skies. The bright star Vega leads the stellar charge in the east. Vega is definitely the brightest star in the east after dusk, and is also the brightest star in the small and faint constellation Lyra (the Harp). The light you see from Vega tonight left that star in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was president. Vega’s a little over 150 trillion miles from our troubles and triumphs on Earth.

Closer to horizon in the east, start looking for Cygnus (the Swan). It’s also known by its more popular name, the Northern Cross, for obvious reasons. It looks like a cross rising on its side below and to the left of the star Vega.

Facing north and looking high up you’ll see the Big Dipper hanging diagonally by its handle. Remember, the Big Dipper is actually the tail and rear end of the Big Bear. Look for a faint skinny triangle of stars that makes up the bear’s head just to the lower right of the pot section of the Big Dipper. There are also two sets of curve lines that make up a front and rear leg of the bear. In fact, just where the bear’s paw would be are two faint stars close to each other. In other words, there’s a double star at each paw. The fainter Little Dipper, or Little Bear, is below and to the right of the Big Dipper, with Polaris, the North Star at the end of the dipper’s handle, or the bear’s tail. Polaris, the North Star, is certainly not the brightest star in the sky, but it is the brightest star in the Little Dipper. All the stars in the sky, including our Sun, appear to revolve around the North Star every 24 hours. This is because Polaris is shining directly above the Earth’s North Pole.

There is a giant kite almost overhead, otherwise known as the constellation Bootes. According to legend, Bootes is supposed to be a hunter trying to knock off the Big Bear, Ursa Major. The brightest star in Bootes is the very bright giant Arcturus, 36 light-years away, and is the tail of the kite. Arcturus and Bootes are easy to find. Just follow the curve of the handle of the Big Dipper beyond the handle and you’ll easily run into Arcturus.

Just next to Bootes and Arcturus to the east is Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. It actually looks like the crown is upside down. It also resembles a right side up cereal bowl. It’s one of my favorites.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and author of the new book “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and on his Web site, www.lynchandthestars.com.

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