The Great Late June Star Show!
The Summer Solstice, the first day of astronomical summer, is on June 21 this year. It's the longest day of the year, but unfortunately for us stargazers, it's also the shortest night of the year, which means staying up late to begin your celestial adventures.
The good news is that the nights get longer after the solstice, and stargazing can start earlier and earlier. Get an afternoon nap so you can enjoy the show over Butler!
The very bright planet Venus continues its stint as the "evening star" this month, and it's by far the brightest star-like object in the night sky. You can't miss it beaming away in the west, popping out long before the end of evening twilight.
Since Venus is entirely shrouded by a very dense atmosphere, there isn't much to see with a telescope. However, since it's an inferior planet with its orbit around the sun within the Earth's orbit, it goes through phases like our moon.
At the start of the month, Venus is half-moon shaped and gradually will become crescent as June continues.
Venus has a companion in the western sky this month. It's the much fainter planet Mars with its orange-red hue. On June 1, Mars will be a little over 10 degrees to the upper left of Venus. That's about the width of your fist held at arm's length.
As June continues, Mars and Venus will draw closer and closer to each other. On May 30, Mars will be just a little over three and a half degrees to the upper left of Venus and just to the lower right of the moderately bright star Regulus. On June 21, the first night of summer, the new crescent moon will form a triangle with Venus and Mars. Don't miss it!
Unfortunately, Mars is a dud through any size telescope this month because it's so far away. About all you'll see is an orange-red dot.
June’s full moon, best known as the Strawberry Moon, is on June 4.
Our lunar neighbor rises around sunset and takes a low westward arc across the southern sky for the rest of the night. You may want to hold off on serious stargazing the first week of June because of all the moonlight bombarding the celestial stage.
After the first week of June with the darker skies, you can see the slow transition from spring to summer stars and constellations. If you lie back on that reclining lawn chair and look in the high northern heavens, you'll easily see the Big Dipper that outlines the rear end and tail of Ursa Major, the Big Bear.
Not far from the end of the Dipper's handle, you'll see a super bright orange star. That's Arcturus, one of the brightest stars in our sky. Just follow the arc of the Big Dippers' handle beyond the end of the handle, and you'll run right into Arcturus.
That little stargazing trick is known as "arc to Arcturus." Arcturus is also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes, the hunting farmer, which looks more like a giant nocturnal kite. Arcturus is at the kite's tail.
Over in the eastern skies, summer stars are making their initial evening appearance. Leading the way is Vega, the brightest star of Lyra the Harp. A little to the lower left of Vega is Deneb, the brightest star of Cygnus the Swan.
Within the constellation Cygnus, you can easily see the asterism, the "Northern Cross," rising sideways. Deneb lies at the top of the cross and is at least 1500 light-years away, but it could be much farther!
Another great summer constellation is rising in the low southeast, Scorpius the Scorpion. It's one of those few constellations that really resembles what it's supposed to be. Its brightest star, Antares, marks the heart of the celestial scorpion.
Look to the upper right of Antares, and you'll see three stars lined up diagonally that outline the great beast's head. Antares is an incredibly vast star, so large that if you put it in our solar system in place of our sun, the Earth would be inside the inner core of Antares!
Stay up well past midnight, and you'll eventually see the constellation Sagittarius rising behind Scorpius. According to Greek and Roman mythology, Sagittarius is supposed to outline a centaur, half man-half horse, shooting an arrow. With your imagination in overdrive, you can see how that might be. With no imagination, Sagittarius looks like a giant coffee or teapot.
Enjoy the shorter but wonderful nights of June!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of "Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations," published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.