June kicks off summer sky observing schedule
I have been rained out so many weekends I only get to observe the night sky rarely. During the week, it is often clear but I am in Muskogee, Okla., for much of the week. Then, the weekends are rained out. Poor weather for observing is probably the biggest obstacle to amateur astronomy. Amateur astronomy, whatever other virtues one may experience while pursuing it, teaches one patience.
June really starts the summer observing schedule. First off, the summer solstice occurs on June 21. The Sun will reach the highest above the horizon on that date. Many ancient peoples recognized this time of year and could discern it with the placement of various markers or devices they developed to let them know when this date occurred. Summer truly begins on that date in the northern hemisphere.
June is the time to get out under very dark skies and look for the Milky Way late in the evening. As summer comes on, it will be easier to see, presenting itself around 9 p.m. and so very easy to see. The Milky Way always repays scanning with binoculars. Literally hundreds of thousands of stars can be visible on a dark night at a sufficiently dark site. If you are going to such a place this summer, don’t miss this remarkable starry span — the direction of the center of our home galaxy.
Jupiter will continue to shine brightly all summer evening. It will be the brightest object nearly directly south in the night sky and should be easy to find. Here is another good binocular object. Brace the binoculars against something steady (a car roof has always served me well), breathe slowly and look for tiny pinpricks of life on either side of the planet itself. These tiny bits of light are one or more of the moons of Jupiter that Galileo discovered about 1610. Your binoculars are far better optical instruments than Galileo had so you just might see what he saw.
The wonderful ringed planet Saturn is at opposition in June. What does a planet being at opposition mean? It means, in our night sky, the Sun and Saturn are at exactly opposite horizons from one another. Maybe a more helpful way to think of this is to realize that the Sun will set in the west and just opposite this sunset, Saturn will rise above the eastern horizon. For Saturn observers, and I certainly count myself among this group, Saturn will become a bright evening planet, a lot easier to observe than when one must get up at 2 a.m. to see it! Just at opposition, Saturn will shine at its brightest all year. The rings will span 41.7 seconds of arc and the rings will be inclined 27 degrees to our line of sight. Technical specs aside, this means that Saturn will be ideal for the amateur observer. I know I will be trying to get a good picture of it with new planetary imaging equipment I have. I am always fascinated by its visual appearance—I can’t get enough of viewing it.
We draw closer each day to the total eclipse of the Sun on Aug. 21, 2017. While only a partial eclipse will appear to observers in Arkansas, this is the time to get ‘eclipse glasses’ from many vendors who are selling them now. You can get five pair for about $13. D0 not look at this eclipse without wearing safety glasses! You can do permanent damage to your eyes just looking at the partially eclipsed Sun for just a few seconds.
— Dr. David Cater is a former faculty member of JBU. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are those of the author.