The Evening Sky in June 2016

Download a PDF containing this chart, additional charts for specific areas of the sky and descriptions of interesting objects visible at this time of year.

The Evening Sky in June 2016

Bright planets light up the evening sky along with the brightest stars. Golden Jupiter appears midway up the north sky soon after sunset. Orange (tending apricot-coloured) Mars is due east. By 8 pm, the chart's time, Jupiter is in the northwest and Mars is northeast of the zenith. Jupiter and Mars are similar in brightness. Cream-coloured Saturn is below and right of Mars and fainter. It is directly below orange Antares, the brightest star in Scorpio. The Moon will be near Jupiter on the 11th and 12th and passing by the Mars-Saturn region on the 17th to 19th.

Low in the west at dusk is Sirius, the brightest true star. It sets around 9 pm mid-month, twinkling like a diamond. Canopus, the second brightest star, is in the southwest. It is a 'circumpolar' star: one that never sets. Sirius appears bright both because it is 20 times brighter than the sun, and because it is relatively close at nine light years*. Canopus, the second brightest star, is higher in the southwest sky, circling lower into the south later on. Canopus is 310 light years away and 13,000 times brighter than the sun. Arcturus is a lone bright star in the northeast. Its orange light often twinkles red and green when it is low in the sky. It sets in the northwest in the morning hours.

Jupiter and Saturn are both worth a look in small telescopes. Jupiter's disk is obvious, even in binoculars. A telescope shows its four 'Galilean' moons lined up on either side. It is 830 million km away. A small telescope shows Saturn's rings and its biggest moon, Titan, about four ring-diameters from the planet. Saturn is 1350 million km away mid-month. Mars, though bright, is small in a telescope. It is 80 million km away. We are leaving it behind after passing it at the end of May.

Crux, the Southern Cross, is south of the zenith. Beside it and brighter are Beta and Alpha Centauri, often called 'The Pointers' because they point at Crux. Alpha Centauri is the closest naked-eye star, 4.3 light years away. Beta Centauri and many of the stars in Crux are hot, extremely bright blue-giant stars hundreds of light years away. They are members of a group of stars that formed together then scattered. The group is called the Scorpio-Centaurus Association.

Antares, marking the scorpion's heart, is a red giant star: 600 light years away and 19 000 times brighter than the sun. Red giants are much bigger than the sun but much cooler, hence the orange- red colour. Though hundreds of times bigger than the Sun, Antares is only about 20 times the Sun's mass or weight. Most of the star's mass is in its hot dense core. The rest of the star is thin gas. Red giants are dying stars, wringing the last of the thermo-nuclear energy from their cores. Antares will end in a spectacular supernova explosion in a few million years. Below Scorpius is Sagittarius, its brighter stars making 'the teapot'.

The Milky Way is brightest and broadest in the southeast toward Scorpius and Sagittarius. It remains bright but narrower through Crux and Carina then fades in the western sky. The Milky Way is our edgewise view of the galaxy, the pancake of billions of stars of which the sun is just one. The thick hub of the galaxy, 30 000 light years away, is in Sagittarius. A scan along the Milky Way with binoculars will find many clusters of stars and some glowing gas clouds. Relatively nearby dark clouds of dust and gas dim the light of distant stars in the Milky Way. They look like holes and slots in the Milky Way. There is a well-known dark cloud called The Coalsack by the Southern Cross. It is around 600 light years away. The dust, more like smoke particles in size, comes off old red stars. These clouds eventually coalesce into new stars.

The Clouds of Magellan, LMC and SMC, in the lower southern sky, are luminous patches easily seen by eye in a dark sky. They are two small galaxies about 160 000 and 200 000 light years away. The Large Cloud is about 5% the mass of the Milky Way; the Small Cloud is about 3%.

Mercury is in the northeast dawn sky. At the beginning of the month it rises two hours before the sun. It sinks lower through the month. Around the 17th it will be left of orange Aldebaran. Further left of Mercury will be the Pleiades/Matariki star cluster just appearing in the dawn twilight.

*A light year (l.y.)is the distance that light travels in one year: nearly 10 million million km or 1013 km. Sunlight takes eight minutes to get here; moonlight about one second. Sunlight reaches Neptune, the outermost major planet, in four hours. It takes sunlight four years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.

Newsletter editor:

Alan Gilmore Phone: 03 680 6817
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New Zealand