Celestial News: Planets rule June skies
The evening sky this month will be packed with planets. Venus, Jupiter and Saturn will dominate the celestial action as they move through the constellations and encounter other celestial objects along the way.
Shining like a beacon in the western sunset glow is our enchanting Evening Star, Venus. There’s nothing brighter in the sky, so Venus is the first object to pop out after the sun goes down. If you know right where to look, you can even see it before the sun goes down.
Watch on June 10 as Venus pulls up right alongside the two bright stars of the Gemini Twins, Castor and Pollux. Nine days later, on June 19, Venus will pass in front of the Beehive Star Cluster. The contrast between the sky’s brightest planet and the twinkly stars of the Beehive, as seen through binoculars or a small telescope, will provide an unforgettable cosmic moment. Be sure to catch this event before Venus and the Beehive set in the west, northwest sky about 11 p.m.
By the time Venus sets, the sky’s second brightest planet, Jupiter, will already be high in the southern sky and ready to take over. Take a close look at Jupiter on the evening of June 3. You’ll notice a little star right beside the dazzling planet.
That star is Alpha Librae, also called Zubenelgenubi. If you keep an eye on Jupiter from night to night, you can actually watch it moving relative to Zubenelgenubi. Jupiter was closest to Earth on May 8, but it is still close enough to give a spectacular view through a backyard telescope. Look for up to four giant moons accompanying the giant planet, too.
The third bright planet to light up our June sky is Saturn. When Saturn reaches opposition on June 27, it will be 9.05 astronomical units, or 841-million miles from Earth — its closest point for 2018. Saturn will rise in the southeastern sky at dusk and shine brightly all night long.
This year, Saturn shines down on us from just above the unmistakable Teapot asterism in the constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer. As fate would have it, the full Thunder Moon will rise alongside Saturn on the night of its opposition.
A telescope of almost any size, aimed at Saturn, will reveal its beautiful icy rings and the largest of its 62 moons, Mercury-sized Titan. Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered and named Titan in the year 1655.
Today, we know that Titan possesses a frigid, nitrogen-rich atmosphere that is denser than Earth’s and harbors great lakes of liquid methane and ethane on its icy surface. Saturn’s rings are tilted almost at their maximum toward Earth this year, so it’s a great chance to see the solar system’s crown jewel at its best.
Next month, Mars will join the planet parade as it comes closer to Earth than it has in fifteen years.
Jimmy Westlake retired from full time teaching at Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat Springs in 2017, after 19 years as professor of physical sciences. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today newspaper. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.
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