SKY REPORTER: June’s Planet Spectacular

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Conjunction of the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter on December 1, 2008.

(Bencmq at Wikimedia Commons)


One fine afternoon long ago, I walked with my parents Sunny and Svend along Bay Ridge’s Shore Road to the athletic field of Ft. Hamilton high school. There we enjoyed a lively soccer match featuring a team from Denmark, Dad’s homeland. A bit after sunset, during the contest’s final minutes, I noticed an extremely bright star appear westward over the pitch. Told it was the “evening star,” a subsequent family visit to the Hayden Planetarium indicated what we had seen over that field was my first definitive view of Venus – a captivating experience, and like so many later sky encounters, fondly remembered.

 

My most recent experience with Venusian charm was an hour after sunset on the penultimate night of May—the view startled me. Though I’ve seen Venus more than a few times, I sometimes forget just how strikingly vivid the planet can appear. Dodging tree branches I caught sight of Jupiter, then to its lower right Venus popped into view. It looked ridiculously bright, like an aircraft’s landing light aimed right at me. But that beautiful sparkle didn’t fly off, it surely was the magnificent albeit inhospitable neighbor world of Earth.

 

On clear evenings this month, lovely Venus may be spotted in the western sky as soon as 10 to 15 minutes after sunset. Not much later, sunlight reflected from Jupiter’s swirling cloud tops begins to outshine fading twilight and the big planet becomes visible, manifesting June’s celestial pas de deux.

 

The angular separation between brilliant Venus and bright Jupiter is 20 degrees of arc at the start of this month—roughly twice the width of your fist, seen at arm’s length. On June first, the distances from Earth are about 70 million miles for Venus and Jupiter is 530 million miles away. Early this month Jupiter shines with visual magnitude minus 1.9, while Venus is at magnitude –4.4, ten times brighter than the much larger planet.

 

If you turn your telescope to each in early June you’ll notice some dark Jovian atmospheric belts and perhaps four or more satellites. The height of Venus’s crescent is about 22 seconds of arc. As the month progresses, the pair’s separation steadily decreases. Days pass and Jupiter’s apparent size decreases slightly as its distance from Earth increases. Conversely, Venus moves closer to us and its apparent size increases. By June 30, Venus will look slightly larger than Jupiter when seen through a telescope of at least 20 magnifications.

 

Saturday June 6, the planets’ separation will have decreased to 16 degrees of arc. Jupiter lingers near the border between Leo and the Crab, as speedy Venus steadily approaches its sky position. The smaller, faster planet reaches its greatest eastern elongation from the Sun that night with Venus setting at 11:38 p.m. for observers around New York City.

 

Saturday, June 13, Venus is just one degree from the center of the famed “Beehive” star cluster, also known as Messier 44. Binoculars and low power telescopes will show you dozens of fine cluster stars near the brilliant planet if your sky is dark and cloudless.

 

Monday the 15, our featured planets are nine degrees apart.

 

A celestial trifecta unfolds Thursday June 18 through Sunday June 21, as a waxing Moon passes near Venus and Jupiter, forming an eye-catching configuration. With the lunar crescent nearby, telescopic views of Venus show a similar curved shape. The effect has prompted more than a few novice observers seeing Venus for the first time in a telescope, to think the instrument was aimed instead at the Moon. On the 21, the first night of summer, Venus is just five degrees of arc from Jupiter.

 

During the last week of June into early July, even casual viewers of the western evening sky may be astonished by the planetary couple. If you’re out and about those nights, don’t be surprised if you hear comments on the street by folks who glimpse those two bright worlds so close together—some may even think they’ve seen lights of a UFO.

 

The planetary rendezvous reaches a climax June 30. The jewel-like celestial setting will be spectacular! On that final evening of the month Venus shines 13 times brighter than Jupiter and is 48 million miles from Earth. By comparison, separation between our planet and giant Jupiter is then 565 million miles—over 11 times further than Venus.

 

As twilight fades, with a clear sky toward the west, we will see Venus and Jupiter one-third of a degree apart – less than the width of a Full Moon. That’s about two-thirds the width of a pencil seen at arm’s length. Actual conjunction time of the planets will be 10:17 a.m. EDT, the morning of July 1st, when they each have the same east-west coordinate position. However, the night of June 30, those planets will be seen slightly closer to each other than they will on the following night.

 

The Moon

Lunar Phases, June 2015
Full Moon June 2
Last Quarter June 9
New Moon June 16
First Quarter June 24

 

Planets

Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn, are prominent features of the evening sky throughout June, however Mars is now overwhelmed by sunlight, and not visible for casual viewing. After its inferior conjunction on June 14, the red planet joins Uranus and Neptune west of the Sun.

The major sky show this month features Venus and Jupiter, highlighting their springtime encounter.

 

The evening of June 1, a bright waxing gibbous Moon is less than four degrees to the east of Saturn, by the head of Scorpius.

 

Summer begins in the northern hemisphere Sunday June 21 at 12:38 p.m. EDT. At that moment the Sun is directly above a point in the Caribbean Sea, on the northern tropic at west longitude 69° 03'. That’s 717 miles east by south of Miami, Florida, and 410 miles north northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

 

Wednesday, June 24, Mercury is at its greatest western elongation, 22 degrees of arc from the Sun.

 

The evening of Sunday June 28th, the waxing gibbous Moon is about one degree of arc north of Saturn in Scorpius.

 

A leap second will be added to the world’s clocks June 30 at 7:59:60 p.m. EDT compensating for slowing of Earth’s rotation rate. The great planetary encounter climaxes that evening with Jupiter and Venus at their closest visible proximity.

Planets for June 15th
Mercury Rises 4:33 a.m. Taurus
Venus Sets 11:25 p.m. Cancer
Mars Rises 5:22 a.m. Taurus
Jupiter Sets 11:46 p.m. Leo
Saturn Sets 4:13 a.m. Libra
Uranus Rises 2:09 a.m. Pisces
Neptune Rises 12:26 a.m. Aquarius

 
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