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The Sky This Week, 2016 June 14 - 21

The shortest nights of the year.
Mars, 2016 June 12, 02:12.5 UT
imaged from Alexandria, Virginia

The Moon waxes in the evening sky this week, passing through the summer constellations along the southern reaches of the ecliptic. Full Moon occurs on the 20th at 7:02 am Eastern Daylight Time. June’s Full Moon is popularly known as the Strawberry Moon, Rose Moon, Mead Moon, and Honey Moon. Each of these names not only indicates something indicative of the month’s flora, they also refer to the warm tone that the Moon can take on a warm June evening due to her southerly declination. Look for the Moon a few degrees north of the bright star Spica on the evening of the 14th. On the 16th and 17th she accompanies ruddy Mars across the sky, and on the 18th she passes just over two degrees north of yellow-hued Saturn.

The summer solstice falls on the 20th at 6:34 pm EDT. At this time the center of the Sun’s disc stands directly over the Tropic of Cancer north of the Hawai’ian Islands. While astronomers consider this to be the first day of summer, many traditional calendars observe it as "Midsummer’s Day", commemorating the year’s longest day. Here in Washington Old Sol is above the horizon for 14 hours 54 minutes. Add in the times of morning and evening twilight and the duration of astronomical darkness amounts to a paltry 5 hours 8 minutes. The farther north you go, the less the duration of night becomes. Cities such as Paris and London never experience total darkness at this time of the year, and places north of the Arctic Circle see the Sun above the horizon for a full 24 hours. The Sun appears to hover near the Tropic of Cancer for a week or so around the time of the solstice, and most of us probably won’t notice the changing times of sunrise and sunset until well into July.

Despite the short nights of the season, we had a great turnout at "Astronomy Night on the National Mall". Several thousand people turned out to enjoy views of the Moon, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. These will be the main objects of interest this week as most of the rest of the sky will be washed out by the light of the Moon. However, these bright objects still offer plenty to look at and enjoy. At around 10:00 pm there’s a great parade of Jupiter, the Moon, Mars and Saturn delineating the ecliptic in the southern sky. The planets offer a nice color contrast with each other that makes a nice treat for a casual skyward glance. A small telescope will offer hours of pleasing views of the Moon’s varied landscapes as the terminator reveals features on Luna’s largest lava plains, the Mare Imbrium and Oceanus Procellarum. Use an on-line lunar atlas to locate some of the more prominent craters and formations. Soon you’ll know your way around our closest neighbor in space.

Jupiter is visible shortly after sunset, sitting high in the western sky. Although he’s now over three months past opposition, the giant planet is still something that’s well worth looking at in a telescope. Even though his apparent disc is now almost 10 arcseconds smaller than it was back in March there’s still more detail to see here than on any other planet. Catch him early in the evening before he drops into the turbulence above the horizon.

Mars is now almost a month past opposition, but his disc is still nearly the same size as it was in late May. That said, it’s less than half the apparent diameter of Jupiter, so gleaning detail from it takes lots of patience and a very steady night. However, the enigmatic features that do reveal themselves have intrigued astronomers for over three centuries and still captivate us today. Even though we’ve mapped the surface of this distant world in exquisite detail with orbiting probes, here’s still something magical about seeing those faint smudges in the eyepiece.

Saturn follows Mars across the sky, a pale yellow glow compared to the almost gaudy glow of the red planet. The planet’s spectacular rings are easy to spot in the smallest telescopes, but as you point larger instruments toward him you’ll see more details in the rings as well as more of his smaller icy moons. Even on nights of poor "seeing" the rings stand out, almost always bringing out a few "oohs" and "aahs" from those who see them for the first time.

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