In the Northern Hemisphere, summer officially begins on June 21st, the Summer Solstice (Latin for standstill). The Sun, source of energy, light, and heat, will reach the northernmost point in its annual path across the sky, appear to “stand still,” and then reverse direction. This will be the longest day and the shortest night of the year. The Sun will start to set a little earlier every night and move South from thereon. The summer months will bring warmer temperatures and the Milky Way here in Utah. Of course. This apparent motion results from the Earth’s axial tilt of 23.5 degrees and our orbit around the center of our Solar System.
The planets will be visible in the morning, with Venus dazzling brightest. The days following June 15th, even though it will be early, offer you the opportunity to observe all the naked-eye planets, including Mercury (See the image below). If you are not a night-owl but an early-riser, get up early and watch this planetary dance. This will be a mark of accomplishment, and you can return to snoozing or stay up and hike in Zion or the surrounding area. Saturn will rise around 1:30 AM. Watch out for the Lord of the Rings.
With June comes the Milky Way, around 10:30 PM for our location. The Milky Way's outer edge, which spans 100,000 light years in diameter, is visible in the direction of Cygnus, the Swan, who flies towards the bright core of our home galaxy. You need a dark skies location and a moonless night to see the wispy band of countless stars low across the sky. As the night progresses, the Milky Way will continue to rise and be vertical by about 2:30 AM. You can find the core by looking for an asterism called “the Teapot” (part of Sagittarius). The milk steam rises from the spout upwards, producing the Milky Way. Pretty cool, eh?
Polaris is our North Star. It is part of the Little Bear or Ursa Minor and indicates the direction of North for the Northern hemisphere. Even though it is such an important marker, it is only the 48th brightest star in the night sky. Since our rotational axis points in the direction of Polaris, all the stars seem to move around it, as shown by this stacked image of 30-second exposures over an hour and a half.
Stars circling around Polaris over an hour and a half. Photo: Matthias Schmitt.
How do you find Polaris? Once you know the Swiss army knife of star hopping, the Big Dipper, it's pretty easy to find. The great thing about the Big Dipper is that it is a very recognizable asterism. Once you identify the bowl of the dipper, find the two back stars, called Merak and Dubhe, connect them and “Point to Polaris,” and there it is, your Lode Star.
The Tau Herculids event was not the meteor shower that some hoped it would be, but it was a great experience to see a nice shower on the night of May 30th. Our guests counted between 45 and 60 meteors over an hour and a half and were rewarded with a pass of the International Space Station above us. How do you know that what you are looking at is the space station and not just a satellite? If you see an astronaut waving at you, it is the ISS.
A pretty lovely fireball streaking across the sky.
If you want to learn more about meteor showers and how you help track meteors and fireballs, visit the American Meteor Society’s website.
Astronomical Dates and Times:
First Quarter: June 7
Full Moon: June 14
Last Quarter: June 20
New Moon: June 28
Astro Twilight End June 1st (Virgin, UT): 10:38 PM
Astro Twilight End June 15th: 10:48 PM
Astro Twilight End June 30th: 10:50 PM