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What's Up Above? June Stargazing

By “Astro” Mark Laurin


Let’s go to the park, run in the grass, and feel summer between our toes.  Across the land, the call went out to one and all. Summer is coming! Summer is coming! Cometh oneth by hazy lazy long days, or twoth by the cool waters swelling around your ankles, calves, and knees.  On Thursday, June 20st, at 2:50 am Mountain Daylight Time, summer arrives.  A cheer will rise and be heard throughout the northern hemisphere, summer is here!

Indeed, the summer solstice is important, essential, and required by the movement of the cosmos.  So much so that this month’s stargazing highlights includes this event.  The Summer Solstice is a top line item on our Solar System’s invisible balance sheet.  The northern hemisphere gets summer, and the southern hemisphere gets winter.  The northern hemisphere has its longest day; and the southern hemisphere has its shortest day.  Each is opposite, and each requires the other. 

As stargazers, we know this balance well.  When winter grips the northern hemisphere, we witness the spectacular sparkles of dazzling gems shivering under layered blankets of wool.  Our ventures outside are momentary.  Summer releases us from winter’s grip.  In summer we linger longer outside at night.  We lie on woolen blankets, now spread out under a canopy of pin pricks of light that shimmer and twinkle. We are mesmerized.  It’s as if we’re floating on a celestial summer river.  And now that you’re there, here’s some objects to view this June.


The Milky Way Returns, June 7th 

The month of June brings a close to the Galaxy Season and the return of the Milky Way.  Indulge an initial question: What is the Milky Way? 

The Milky Way is a Galaxy. It is a barred spiral galaxy, like a large pinwheel.  It is our home. Inside our barred spiral galaxy we find our solar system. (The Sun, Planets, Moons, Dwarf Planets, Asteroids, Comets)  The Milky Way Galaxy is approximately 13.6 billion years old.  The spirals of the bar originate from the galactic center of our Galaxy.  These long spiraling arms fan out with some having spurs. Earth resides in the Orion Spur of the Sagittarius Arm. We live approximately 26,000 light-years away from the Milky Way’s galactic center, and all of the objects in our Galaxy revolve around the galactic center.  And remember, a light-year is just shy of 6 trillion miles!  Yowza! For our solar system to make one revolution around the Milky Way’s galactic center, it takes 250 million years.  Better pack a lunch for that trip. 

And when you look up at the night sky in June, you’ll see the Milky Way rising above the eastern horizon as night progresses.  The Milky Way you view as a hazy band of white light is the Orion Spur. This haze results from billions of unresolved stars (blurry), dust, and gasses.  Brighter regions through the band appear as soft patches of light known as star clouds.  Dark regions within the band is interstellar dust, which blocks the light from the background stars from shining through to us. 

Cultural mythologies concerning the Milky Way are varied and rich.  The Babylonians believed the Milky Way is created from the severed tail of the primeval salt water dragoness, Tiamat. For the Greeks, it’s said Zeus places his son, born by a mortal woman, on Hera's breast while she sleeps so the baby will drink her divine milk and become immortal. It is no surprise that Hera wakes to see she is nursing an unknown baby, she pushes the baby away, spilling her milk, and in so doing creates the band of light known as the Milky Way.  The Romans called it the Via Galactica, or "road made of milk." 


The Summer Solstice, June 20st 

The Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (North America, Europe, most of Asia, Northern Africa) arrives in the Rocky Mountain Region on June 20, 2024 at 2:50pm.

The word “solstice” comes from the combination of two Latin words, “sol” (the Sun) and “sistere” (to stand still). On the 21st, in the northern hemisphere, this appears to happen as the Sun, close to 90 degrees north of the horizon, and directly overhead, crosses the Tropic of Cancer. It seems to be in the same location in the sky, the day before the solstice, and then the day after the solstice. At noon during that period, and for those living on the Tropic of Cancer, the Sun does indeed appear to stand still directly overhead. And it’s all because of the Earth’s tilt and orbit around the Sun. The consequence of this is the Sun reaching its northernmost path in the sky. At the solstice, Earth’s North Pole is at its maximum tilt to the Sun, approximately 23.4 degrees, which is why the Solstice is the longest day of the year.  We can expect roughly 16 hours of daylight on the day of the Summer Solstice.  And if you live near the Arctic Circle, the party never ends – I mean the Sun never sets. Sadly, after that date the Sun begins its long sojourn south, and hence the daytime shortens. But, we don’t need to concern ourselves with that now because it’s summer.


A Full “Strawberry Fields Forever” Moon, June 21st 

Let me take you down, cuz I’m going to, Strawberry Moon…”  No, that’s the wrong word? In truth, the lyric is “strawberry fields” but who can resist the comparison. Think John Lennon would be okay with it. That said, the June full Moon is different in many aspects.  The Moon achieves opposition from the Sun, on Friday, June 21st at 7:07pm for us in Colorado. What makes this full Moon unique that night is because its path across the southern sky is quite a bit lower, closer to the horizon than usual. This has consequences. One is we’ll view the Moon through the thickest part of our atmosphere where air, dust, and other particulates bend the photons to cause the color of the Moon to look reddish, yellow, or orange. Some will see a golden color. Normally, the night of a full Moon is bright, almost well lit. Not so this June. Another consequence of the low altitude path is the Moon will be aloft for just a few brief hours that night. Hum. That’s unusual for a full Moon.  

The “Strawberry Moon” name for the June full Moon was used by generations of indigenous peoples, notably the Algonquian, Ojibwe, Dakota, and Lakota peoples of North America. The Haida people of British Columbia, used the term “Berries Ripen Moon” to denote the Moon when flowers bloom and early spring fruit ripens. For Europeans the June Moon was called the Honey Moon and the Mead Moon. Could it be that since June is the traditional month of marriage, the term “honeymoon” is derived from the name of the June full Moon? Sort of makes one wonder, doesn’t it.

So, rather than “Going down to Strawberry Fields,” how about we go outside to view the “Strawberry Moon?” Promise me (and yourself) you’ll check this one out. Why you ask? Well, because you would have a chance to see the Moon take this lowly sojourn across the southern night sky until 2042. Reason enough.


A Game of Leapfrog. You, The Moon, and Six Planets, June 1th – 6th and June 30th 

Who can resist joining a game of leapfrog? If an old waning Moon can play, you should too.  Set down your pre-dawn cup of Joe and join the Moon and six planets ready to play and do some running and jumping. (Not to worry, it’s early in the morning, so no one is gonna see ya.) And if you're per-occupied around 6am one of these mornings, not to worry, you’ll get another chance with the same six planets and the Moon at the end of the month. That’s because we’ll have another waning crescent Moon, and the same planets in the same location in the sky.

Our leapfrog game is expansive as we're jumping over 73 degrees along the ecliptic. That’s seven closed fists stacked on top of one another. 

You and the Moon will leap over different planets each night. Get ready and look to the east horizon just before 6am on any of these dates. The brightest star closest to the eastern horizon is the planet Jupiter. It is the brightest object in the sky at that location at that time. To the southeast of Jupiter is the planet Mercury, separated by a mere sliver.  Jupiter is bright and may over power Mercury’s reflected light, but you can see it with your naked eye. Now draw an imaginary line 45 degrees from Jupiter up and away towards southeast. Halfway between Jupiter and the thin waning crescent Moon is Uranus. You will definitely need binoculars to find and view Uranus. It will be a greenish, non-blinking point of light. Continuing up our imaginary line up and next is the planet Mars. You will clearly see the God War with your naked eye. It is a noticeable red color. Then to Neptune. Again, you’ll need your binoculars to find it. Neptune is a bit more challenging to locate. Neptune is a bluish hued pin prick dot of light. Again, the white, twinkling dots of light are surrounding background stars. Neptune’s glow will be steady. Your last leap is to the planet Saturn, which is the end of the imaginary line. Saturn is a dimer point of light, but you can see it with your naked eye. Look carefully. It will have a distinct muted green color to it. When you see it through binoculars, the planet is more oval than round due to its rings, which are visible through binoculars.  

Your window to play this game with the Moon and the planets is brief. You might even take a peek around 5:30 am, if you're up and about as the rising Sun is a buzz kill.  The breaking dawn swiftly washes out the planets and the Moon. Oh, and if you miss this month's game of leapfrog, take heart our planetary hopping and jumping resumes in July and August.


So sway away fellow stargazers, be it in your terra firma hammock or nocturnal chaise lounge.  Get outside on the Summer Solstice.  The day and night of June 20st is significant for many reasons, and in many cultures. It is recognized around the world through rituals and festivals. Ergo, all the more reason for you to have a picnic, float on a lake, fly a kite, or lay in the grass sifting its dense blades between your toes. And after a day like this, then greet the night and relax. Tilt your head back and look up to enjoy the wonders of the universe.  Blend your longest day of the year into a summer night under the celestial sphere.  It’s June.  Summer is here. Dive into the cosmos and get wet.


Clear skies to you!


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