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A Guide to the Night Sky: June 2016

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A Guide to the Night Sky
June 2016 

By Tre Gibbs, LAAS

We’re halfway through the year already!  “Where does the time go?” Luckily, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars will be putting on quite the astronomical show this month to lift our spirits and maybe help us to slow things down a bit….

Jupiter, will be the very bright, star-like object high in the SSW after sunset, gleaming within the boundaries of Leo the Lion (look for the group of stars that look like a big backwards question mark to the right of Jupiter). As Jupiter drifts westward, look for Mars and Saturn slowly rising in the SE, again just after sunset.  Mars will be the bright, orangish “star” (just before Scorpius the Scorpion) and Saturn, though well within Scorpius, appears relatively dim and follows not too far behind Mars.

Although hard to spot in the sky if you don’t know where or when to look, Saturn is the quintessential, ringed planet.  Named after The God of Agriculture, Saturn, like Jupiter, is a giant ball of gas, so, there is no surface on which to land or walk. It’s so far away that it looks a lot less stunning than Jupiter does.  In fact, it doesn’t really stand out at all, except for a barely discernible beige color and the fact that it doesn’t twinkle. It’s ring system, which stretches a distance that’s roughly 3/4 of the way from Earth to the Moon (about 175,000 miles) is made mostly of water ice - and while impressive in length, the vertical height, or thickness, is only about 30 feet.

Saturn is also about 880 million miles away from the sun, and this month about 790 million miles away from us here on Earth.  Translated into the speed of light - when you see Saturn, you are seeing as it was roughly one hour and ten minutes ago, since it took that long for the light to leave Saturn and reach your eye.  Let that sink in for a moment.  While our beautiful planet takes about 365 days to orbit the sun, Saturn takes 29 years to make one full orbit (which makes me about 1 and 3/4 years old on Saturn).

 The best way to spot Saturn is by using the moon.  The sun, moon and planets all travel the same path in the sky (called the ecliptic). On the evening of June 11th, the moon and Jupiter appear together high in the SW after dusk - around 8:30 pm.  Look for both on that one night only as they quickly drift westward - because remember, the moon is always moving slowly to the east, although it appears to us (as we spin on our axis) that everything in the sky moves in a westward direction.  Therefore, 6 days later, on the evening of the 17th, the moon will have slipped further east and will now travel the sky between both Mars and Saturn. Mars will be the bright, orangish beacon on the right and below the moon and Saturn will be the less bright, but steady beige-isn beacon to the left of the moon - both almost equidistant from it.  

On the following night, the moon, on it’s continuous eastward path, will have slipped past Saturn, now traveling just to the left of the ringed gas giant.

So until next month, KEEP LOOKING UP - It’s astronomically awesome up there !!