Summer is upon us this month, and the brief solstice nights tell the tale. Yet despite the reduced hours of darkness, there is still much to see: Venus and Jupiter stage a spectacular conjunction at month’s end; Saturn and its rings are visible throughout the night; and Mercury makes a dramatic appearance at dawn.
Venus and Jupiter adorn the evening
The two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter, are dazzling in the western sky at twilight. As June begins, Venus – the evening star – is impossible to miss: Look for it 25 degrees above the horizon, shining in Gemini just to the left of the twin stars, Pollux and Castor. Jupiter is not quite as bright, but just as easy to spot: The giant planet shines in Cancer, 20 degrees to the upper left of Venus. However, this setting is temporary as things change rapidly over the coming weeks.
By June 3, Venus moves into Cancer as it quickly catches up to the slower moving Jupiter: In fact, throughout the month, the gap between them closes by almost 8/10 degree per day! On the 9th, Jupiter moves into Leo and by then, the two planets are less than 14 degrees apart. But as the days pass, the two planets continue to close in on each other and the excitement mounts…
By the evening of June 19, Venus and Jupiter are just 6½ degrees apart; and adding to the action, the Moon enters the scene forming a spectacular triangle with the two. The lunar crescent appears directly below Venus on the 19th, and to the lower left of Jupiter the 20th. During this period, the soft glow of earthshine illuminates the otherwise dark portion of the lunar surface. The sight of the crescent moon and planets, shining in the twilight, is one of the most beautiful views the sky has to offer!
Over the following evenings, Venus continues to converge with Jupiter – until June 30, when the dazzling Evening Star will come to rest just 1/3 of a degree below the giant planet! This is the moment we’ve been waiting for…
Though spectacular on its own, this close conjunction will be stunning through a small telescope, and well worth the effort even with binoculars. Although Jupiter will be 12 times farther than Venus, both planets will have the same 30 arc second apparent diameter. Venus displays a crescent phase, while just above it, Jupiter flaunts its dark cloud bands and four Galilean moons: Look for Ganymede on one side of the Jovian disk, and Europa, Io and Callisto on the other. Overall, a truly dramatic scene… and a photo op not to be missed!
Saturn is visible all night
The ringed planet was at opposition on May 22 and as a result, it remains visible throughout most of the night. Currently moving in retrograde among the stars of Libra, Saturn is easy to identify: Look for it rising in the southeast at twilight, just above the head of Scorpius. In case of doubt, on the evening of June 1, the nearly full moon will be situated just 3½ degrees to the left of the ringed planet; and on the evening of June 28, the gibbous moon will appear next to it once again. Of course, you can always refer to our seasonal sky map, at any time, to locate Saturn.
Because Saturn is currently in a region of sky that never rises high above the southern horizon, the hours surrounding midnight provide the best telescopic views of the planet: This is when Saturn is near culmination and least affected by atmospheric attenuation and turbulence. The planet’s rings are currently inclined 25 degrees toward Earth, offering a really spectacular sight… A great addition those late-night summer BBQ’s!
Mercury, dramatic through binoculars
Because it’s always close to the Sun, Mercury has a reputation for being difficult to spot. But around the third week of June the tiny planet lingers among the stars of the “V” shaped Hyades cluster in Taurus, and is rather easy to find – though binoculars are recommended. Starting on June 20, look for Mercury at dawn, about 45 minutes before sunrise, just above the north-northeast horizon: You’ll find it just to the lower left of the star, Delta Tauri, in the Hyades. Over the following days you can follow Mercury as it moves through the Hyades: By June 24, the tiny planet is reaches its greatest elongation west of the Sun, and is located to the left of the open part of the “V”.
Like Venus, Mercury has an orbit inferior to Earth’s so it exhibits moonlike phases. On June 20, at the start of this apparition, a crescent Mercury will be visible with a telescope; but by the 29th, the planet’s disk becomes half-illuminated; and following that, it displays a gibbous phase. Because of its increasing phase, Mercury grows brighter throughout this period, which makes it easier to find against the glow of dawn. If you want to observe the elusive planet, you have a three-week window – from June 20 to July 11. Thereafter, Mercury quickly descends toward the horizon and becomes lost in the rising glow of daybreak.
Clear skies to all…