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Getting Ready to View the Summer Skies, a Real Treat for Stargazers

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Clear SkiesBy Scott Levine

Here at the very end of May, the last full month of spring is behind us. The official start of summer is only about three weeks away.

Changes are happening in the night sky, too. As we move in our orbit around the sun, our nighttime side faces toward different stars in different corners of our galaxy. So, we associate many stars we see with the seasons when we see them.

Orion, the hunter, for instance, guides us through the cold end of the year. There’s nothing inherently “wintery” or “summery” about the stars, though. After all, not everyone on Earth has the same seasons at the same time. So, those cold nights we spend with Orion are warm summer nights for our friends in Australia and Chile.

While we enjoy these closing days of spring, we can, as we so often do, turn to the moon for a little help. As it moves through our sky this month, it’ll point us toward the stars of three seasons. These stars are in the sky whether the moon is there or not, but the moon is often a good guide.

The phases of the moon in June.

First, let’s look to the west on June 3 just after the sun sets. There in the glowing dusk, we’ll see the sublime sight of a thin crescent moon just above a relaxed arch of five stars. From north (toward the right) to south (toward the left), these are Capella, Menkalinan, Castor, Pollux and Procyon. The moon will appear closest to Pollux, the twins of Gemini. These are the last gasps of the eastern half of the Winter Hexagon, rolled over on its side and still with us.

Also, let’s see if we can spot some shadowy Earthshine on the moon’s darkened half. That’s sunlight that bounced from Earth to the moon and back to our eyes. Look fast, though. They’ll set by mid-evening. It’s amazing to think that these wintertime stars are still with us after all this time, but don’t worry. They’ll be back, high and proud in the east, once the leaves fall.

The moon is at first quarter on June 7, and we’ll see it between the stars Regulus, more or less to its right, and Spica toward its left. High above, let’s see if we can spot the very bright Acrturus. These stars start coming back to the night sky in early February, just when we need a little optimism. Together, they form the corners of the spring triangle and will be with us into September. Let’s spend a minute sitting with Arcturus’s red-orange glow and see why it’s one of my favorite stars.

When we see the almost-full moon on June 13, it will be between the stars of Scorpius, the scorpion, and Sagittarius, the archer-spelling test. The full moon’s light will wash out all but the brightest stars, but we should be able to spot Antares, the red supergiant that marks the scorpion’s heart.

These stars’ time with us is short. They’ll be gone by September, too.

One of the amazing things about watching the skies is seeing the gradual changes that add up night after night. I hope you’ll watch this month. Clear skies!

Scott Levine (astroscott@yahoo.com) is an astronomy writer and speaker from Croton-on-Hudson. He is also a member of the Westchester Amateur Astronomers, who are dedicated to astronomy outreach in our area. For information about the club including membership, newsletters, upcoming meetings and lectures at Pace University and star parties at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, visit www.westchesterastronomers.org.

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