This time of year - June - with the summer solstice around the corner (Wednesday, June 20), the nights are the shortest of the year, and we have to wait till about 10 p.m. for a truly dark sky.
Midnight Milky Way ... . This column is not meant to be a commercial for anyone’s candy bar, but the name is enticing! Eating candy bars at midnight probably is not recommended by most dietitians anyway. Whatever the reason was for naming that chocolate snack, midnight remains an excellent time for stargazing.
There’s no need to stay up that late, of course, to enjoy the heavens. This time of year - June - with the summer solstice around the corner (Wednesday, June 20), the nights are the shortest of the year, and we have to wait till about 10 p.m. for a truly dark sky.
Summer solstice is the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the first day of winter Down Under. (Do they refer to us as “Up Over?” Someone should complain.) Thanks to the Earth being tipped on its axis of spin, twice in its orbit about the sun it reaches the solstice point (in June and December).
Northern Hemisphere folks are now tipped the farthest toward the sun, and we bask in the most hours of sunshine - and alas, the least hours of nighttime starlight (note “starlight” is not listed alone since sunshine is actually starlight, too).
Summer solstice arrives at 7:09 p.m. on June 20.
That evening, the sun will set for me (in northeast Pennsylvania) at 7:39 p.m. EDT. Twilight is over at 10:42 p.m. The stars are now out in force, but only for about four and a half hours! At 2:55 a.m. on June 21, morning twilight begins, and stars will gradually fade in the dawn, with sunrise at 5:26 a.m. - making it the longest day of the year.
The farther north you live, the later the sun sets and the shorter the night.
New moon is on June 19. Starting on the 20th, you can watch for the crescent moon low in the northwest after sunset. The moon sets at 9:06 p.m., only a half-hour after the sun. Being only a thin crescent, fortunately there will not be any moonlight to steal the precious remaining minutes of the dark summer night!
Most of us have to get up in the morning, but if you have a chance to stay up late (or wake very early), you may enjoy the solitude of the night when the majority keep their appointment with their pillows. Traffic has died down and hopefully most of the artificial lights have been turned off. Fireflies will light the grass, and overhead is the vast canopy of the universe spread before your eyes.
Scorpius is due south at midnight. This amazing line of fairly bright stars is marked by an especially bright red star, Antares. The Milky Way Band, at this hour and time of year, stretches from the north-northeast, going high in the east and down through Scorpius in the south. Looking at the Milky Way high in the east, you will see Cygnus the Swan, known as the Northern Cross. The cross is now oriented on its side, with the top of the cross shape at far left, marked by a bright star, Deneb. Above Cygnus and almost overhead you will see the brilliant blue-white star Vega. In the southwest, high up, is the very bright orange star, Arcturus. The Big Dipper, in the north, is now dipping downward. To the left of Polaris the North Star. W-shaped Cassiopeia is to the right of Polaris, in the hazy Milky Way.
If you don’t want to stay up till midnight to see the stars - or eat that candy bar - by all means try 10 p.m. The constellation positions noted above are shifted two hours back. Be sure now to look due south, low in the sky, for the diamond-shaped constellation Libra. It has two stars with great names: Zubeneschamali and Zubeenlgenubi. They’re a lot of fun to say.
During morning twilight, look to the east for the brilliant planet Venus, low in the glow of dawn. Don’t confuse it with Jupiter, which is less bright and higher up, a bit to the right. Binoculars will help you find the planets as dawn brightens.
In the evening, look south for the bright blue-white star Spica and right above it, the planet Saturn, at about the same magnitude. Reddish Mars is visible to the right. Look high up, nearly overhead for the bright orange star Arcturus.
Sky and Telescope Magazine has a very handy almanac calculator online at www.skyandtelescope.com, which lets you find the time of sunrise/set, moonrise/set, start and end of twilight and planetary information, for any spot on Earth.
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Keep looking up!