Popular Astronomy

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What's Up for June 2016

It's an unfair world. All through the winter and spring the nights have been dark but it's been sooo cold. Now that the weather is getting warmer what happens? It hardly ever gets dark, particularly in Britain. You have to wait up till at least 10.30 pm in June to see any stars at all. And then you can hardly recognise any of them because they have changed totally since winter.

So that's where we come in. Use our easy-to-follow sky guide and you'll be out there stargazing in no time. Mind you, even June nights can get chilly, so don't catch your death of cold and make sure you put something sensible on. Don't worry, no-one can see you.

You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here's our map for this month:

Sky for June 2016

Wrong way round?

Now don't write in and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so you have to hold it over your head. When you do this, east and west will be the right way round.

It shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom. OK, smartie, so you can't hold the computer upside down.

The map shows the sky in mid June at about 10.30 pm, at the start of the month at 11.30 pm, or by the end of the month at 9.30 pm, though at this time of year the sky is too light to see anything at that time. All times are BST (Daylight Saving Time).

TIP If you aren't sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.

Making sense of the stars

If it all looks just like a lot of dots, and drives you dotty, here's the way to get to grips with the sky. Start with something familiar and work from there. Most people recognise the seven stars that in the UK we call the Plough and in the US is called the Big Dipper. If you can't find it, it's because you aren't looking high enough – it's almost above your head at this time of year, so it's shown at the centre of this map.

If you think of the Plough as a saucepan, then follow its handle round towards the horizon, you first come to a bright star called Arcturus. Keep going and you come to Spica, the brightest star in Virgo.

Now use the map below to find more patterns nearby, but don't expect to see those convenient lines helping you to see the patterns. If you do see them, consult an optician or give back those glasses your friends gave you on 1 April.

Map for June 16 with constellation names
All maps produced using Stellarium software.

Other constellations to look for

Look for Leo, which is to the right of Virgo. You can't miss it this year because Jupiter is in the middle of it. Then just above the tail of Leo is a faint but interesting constellation called Coma Berenices, which is always worth a look. In city skies you won't see it at all, but use binoculars and you'll spot a whole mass of stars, forming a star cluster.

To the left of Virgo are two stars which are the brightest in Libra. Now use these to pick out a giant cross in the sky, as shown on the map. This will help you to pick out the stars of Serpens Caput, the head of the serpent, and Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer.

Below Ophiuchus is Scorpius, the Scorpion, with the reddish star Antares marking the creature's heart, though this year Mars is just to the right of Scorpius and is rather brighter, so you'll notice that first, and Saturn is above it. From the UK we don't see the whole of the scorpion's tail, which is below and to the left of Antares, but we can see its claws, marked by three stars to its right, towards Libra.

If you want a map with all the constellation names on it, click here.

This month's planets

Right now we have three bright planets on view. Jupiter is shining very brightly over to the west. Take a look through binoculars and you'll probably see some of its four brightest moons on either side of it.

Mars is next brightest, gleaming brightly low down in the south. The Red Planet, they call it, but don't expect it to look as red as a traffic light. It's more of a pink colour, though that doesn't sound as exciting. You can see its colour very clearly right now, as this is one of the years when it is quite close. You'll need a telescope to see its disc, and if you're lucky, using a magnification of 75 or more, you may see one or two of its dark markings. The picture here was taken on 30 May when it was at its closest, but it will still be about the same size during this month.

Saturn is also low down in the evening sky in the south, in the stars of Scorpius. You don't need a super-colossal telescope to see its rings – any reasonably good small telescope should show them using a magnification of 50 or more.  If it doesn't, it isn't (reasonably good, that is).

Mercury and Venus are too close to the Sun to be seen.

For a detailed list of things happening in the sky, click here.

Don't forget the Moon

It begins the month just after last quarter, which was on 29 May. That's when the Moon is only in the morning sky, so you won't see it unless you get up before dawn. Then we have new Moon on the 5th, when it’s in the same part of sky as the Sun and isn’t visible. First quarter – that’s a half Moon – is on the 12th and then full Moon this month is on the 20st. Finally, the Moon ends the month with last quarter on the 27th.
This is the time of year when the full Moon appears very low in the sky. You will probably think it looks bigger than usual, particularly as it stays closer to the horizon for longer than it does in winter, but this is just an optical illusion. If you don't believe us, try measuring its size against a ruler held at arm's length, then measuring it again when it's higher in the sky.
So why does it appear bigger? It's nothing to do with the atmosphere acting as a lens – it doesn't. There are all sorts of theories, the most likely being that your brain compares it with objects such as houses or trees in the foreground and realises that because it is behind them, it must be bigger. Some people find that if they look at the Moon by turning away from it, bending over and looking at it through your legs, so you don't recognise the foreground as much, the illusion disappears. Unlike all those experiments where they say 'don't try this at home', you may want to wait until there is no-one else around before attempting this one. 
Another thing about this year's full Moon is that it's full on the 20th, which is the same day as the midsummer solstice. Not a lot of people know that on the day of a full Moon, the Moon and the Sun are directly opposite each other in the sky. So if you were at Stonehenge watching the midsummer sunrise along the famous alignment with the Heel Stone, you'd be able to look along the other way and see the full Moon setting. Trouble is, there will be a lot of people in the way as that's when people descend on the place pretending to re-enact ancient rituals they have invented. Cynical, us? Never! But you'd have to be up at 5 am to see it, so good luck to you.
We have a whole section of this site about the Moon and what to observe, so do take a look.

Get more helpful info

OK, you've read all this for nothing, now comes the plug. This page is brought to you by the Society for Popular Astronomy, which is a really great society to join. It's based in the UK but there are members in other countries as well. It doesn't cost much to join, and there is a special rate for Young Stargazers. At least take a look at what we have to offer. 
Text by Robin Scagell