Sky Watch for June 2017 – Saturn Peaks and Eclipse Coming in August


The two biggest planets in our Solar System, Jupiter, and Saturn adorn our early summer sky this year.  Jupiter, which has been near its peak in our sky since April, shines at magnitude –2.2 high in the south at sunset, remaining visible until well past midnight.  On June 3rd the waxing gibbous Moon will appear just two degrees from Jupiter.

Rings of Saturn 

Saturn reaches opposition on June 15th as it lies opposite the Sun in our sky and remains visible to us all night.  At oppositions, planets come closest to Earth, so Saturn also shines brightest and looks largest when viewed through a telescope.  The best times to look at Saturn with a telescope is when it is highest, which would be when it is up in the south, from later evening to early morning.  Saturn lies among the stars of Ophiuchus, just past the edge of nearby Sagittarius.  At magnitude 0.0 at opposition, Saturn is far brighter than any star in the surrounding sky.  Any telescopic view of Saturn is spectacular but now, with the rings tilted 27 degrees to our line of sight, seeing their structure is easier than normal.

Another planet, Venus, dazzles too, but in the early dawn eastern sky.  Venus reaches greatest western elongation on June 3rd when it will be 46 degrees west(right) of the Sun.  Venus is at –4.4 magnitude, far brighter than any other morning object.  It rises two hours before the Sun and will be seen about 10 degrees above the eastern horizon one hour before sunrise.  It will be hard to miss, even though its altitude will not be great.  By the end of June Venus will rise 2.5 hours before the Sun and appear some 15 degrees higher.

A really great sight awaits us on June 20 and June 21.  The waning crescent Moon will appear near Venus in the early pre-dawn eastern sky each of those mornings.  And on June 30th, Venus will appear to rise just 8 degrees to the right of the well-known Pleiades star cluster.  Just as morning twilight begins to lighten the sky we should be able to see the Pleiades and Venus together in the viewing field of a pair of binoculars.

Moon phases this month:  1st quarter (June 1st); and (June 30th); Full (June 9th); Last quarter (June 17th); and New (June 23rd).

Summer Solstice occurs at 12:24 am EDT on June 21st ——Summer officially and astronomically begins.

We are getting closer to the wonderful Solar Eclipse of August 21st, so it is time for a few more words about it.  Solar eclipses happen only when the Earth, Sun, and Moon align perfectly so that the Moon passes between us and the Sun directly in front of the Sun.  This is the only time when we can actually see the phase of the Moon we call New.  Usually, we see the Moon partially or fully illuminated by the Sun’s light.  But when the Moon is between us and the Sun its illuminated part is pointed back towards the Sun.  The unlit part faces us and we cannot see it.  So only at eclipse time does that unlit part become visible.

Solar Eclipse

Here are a few things to look for during a total solar eclipse.  In the 5 or 10 minutes before totality, put down your Sun viewing eye protection glasses and notice how the Sun illuminates the grounds around you.  Cars, buildings, trees will appear a bit alien.  The Sun reduced to a mere crescent by the Moon has its light drastically changed in quality.  Shadows will have sharper edges, colors will be saturated, and contrast heightened.  The light passing through trees leaves will leave odd crescent-shaped shadows on the ground.

Totality may be announced by a diamond ring, a temporary small burst of light at the edge of the circle of light of the Sun.  During totality with binoculars look for solar prominences; small deep pink nuclear flames.  And marvel at the corona, the thinnest, wispiest part of the Sun’s atmosphere, which is never seen except during totality.  Around you, on Earth, it will look like a Full Moon night.

I look forward with great anticipation to seeing my first solar totality.  I am told it feels like nothing else in life. So just let it in.  I heard of someone saying, “It felt like the home of my soul.”  American author James Fenimore Cooper, after viewing the total solar eclipse in Oswego New York in 1806, said, “Never have I beheld any spectacle which so plainly manifested the majesty of the Creator, or so forcibly taught the lesson of humility, as a total eclipse of the Sun.”

All I can say is, “be there!”


Photos courtesy of NASA.

Solar Eclipse

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