Backyard Astronomy: June 2015

Here are some fun astronomical events you and your family can enjoy in the month of June. All you need is an inexpensive telescope or binoculars for most of these events, but some of them are viewable with the naked eye.

May 30 – June 4: International Space Station Observing Season. Believe it or not, it’s easy to see the ISS with the naked eye as it passes over the Earth. It’s got a fair amount of surface area that reflects sunlight, which means the best time for spotting it is when the sky is dark but the ISS is lit by the Sun — before sunrise or after sunset. Because of its highly inclined orbit, the ISS approaches full illumination as we near either of the solstices. During this period the ISS will be in permanent illumination, making it easy to spot. Universe Today explains how to prepare for ISS observing season. And here is a handy NASA website for predicting ISS sightings by location and date. By the way, you know how to distinguish it from airplanes, right? Unlike airplanes, the ISS has no blinking lights on it.

June 2: Full Strawberry Moon. A full Moon occurs when it’s on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun, with the half that’s facing us fully illuminated. When it coincides with the peak of strawberry season, it’s known as a Full Strawberry Moon. Contrary to what you might think, this is not the best time to observe the Moon through a telescope. It’s not only too bright through most telescopes, but you don’t get to see the dramatic shadows on mountains and craters along the terminator (the line that separates the illuminated part from the shadowed part) that you do when the Moon is going through other phases. However, a full Moon can be enjoyed either with the naked eye or through a pair of binoculars. With a decent pair of binoculars, you should be able to see a lot of craters and some of the crater rays emanating from giant craters like Tycho and Copernicus (find them on this handy Moon atlas).

June 6: Venus at Greatest Eastern Elongation. What this means in plain language is that Venus will be at its greatest apparent distance (~45 degrees) from the Sun in the sky. It’s a great time to observe Venus, because it’ll be highest in the sky in the evening, just after sunset.

June 21: June Solstice. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the first day of summer. Enjoy the longest day of the year with a BBQ and a star party! If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the first day of winter. You’ll have a longer observing night than the Northerners!

June 24: Mercury at Greatest Western Elongation. This means Mercury will be at its greatest apparent distance from the Sun in the sky (~22 degrees). Mercury is best observed in the morning just before sunrise.