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:
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. This year, nearby Jupiter is brighter, and you can see Spica to its left.
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.
All maps produced using Stellarium software.
Other constellations to look for
Look for Leo, which is to the right of Virgo. 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, and the planet Saturn is to its left. 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’re wondering about what looks like clouds or smoke at the bottom left, that’s the Milky Way putting in an appearance. Most of us never get to see it because of light pollution, but if you get a really clear and dark sky it really does look like bright clouds.
For a map with all the constellation names on it, click here.
This month’s planets
Right now we have just one bright planet on view: Jupiter is shining very brightly very low down in the south-west. Take a look through binoculars and you’ll probably see some of its four brightest moons on either side of it. Being so low down, through a telescope it’s likely to shimmer and shake a bit due to the effects of our atmosphere, but the picture above shows the sort of thing you should see through a small telescope.
Actually, Mars and Mercury are also in the evening sky, but you’ll have to be quick to catch them as they set soon after the Sun down in the north-west, below the two stars, one of which is marked Pollux on the map. Wait until about 45 minutes after sunset and look just a short way above the horizon. Mercury is particularly low at the start of the month, but on the 5th the thin crescent Moon might help you to find Mars, just a short way to its right, and then Mercury is even lower down, a bit farther to the right. Then over the next couple of weeks Mercury moves closer to Mars until by the 18th they are very close to each other – what’s known as a conjunction. But they aren’t really close – it’s just a line-of-sight effect, because Mars is 2½ times farther away than Mercury. But now they are both lower in the sky so it may be a struggle to find them unless the sky is really clear.
If you can view them through a telescope you might see a big difference between them – we say ‘might’ because they are very low down and the atmosphere will distort the view so you’ll probably just see two dots. Mercury looks like a miniature half Moon, while Mars is more reddish in colour but half the size of Mercury – probably just a dot of light.
Saturn is also low down in the late evening sky in the south-east, but it won’t be high enough to see well until about midnight, if you’re desperate to spot it. Better to wait for a month or two when it will be much easier to see.
For a detailed list of things happening in the sky, click here.
Don’t forget the Moon
It begins the month as a very thin crescent in the early morning sky, as last quarter was on 26 May. Next comes New Moon on the 3rd, though it’s in line with the Sun then and you won’t see it at all. You might just see the crescent Moon low down in the western twilight on the 5th about 30 minutes after sunset, but it’ll be easier to see on the 7th, when it’s just below Mars (and will make it easier to find Mars in the bright twilight). There’s first quarter on the 10th, then full Moon is on the 17th. The month ends with last quarter on the 25th. Sorry, no eclipses this month.
This is the time of year when the full Moon, on the 17th, appears very low in the sky. The Moon also looks almost full on two or three days on either side of the actual date. 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.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