The month of June always marks the beginning of summer for us in the northern hemisphere. The summer solstice will happen at 7:28 a.m. June 21. The word solstice means “sun stands still” which is what it is appearing to do as it pauses for a day at the very apex of its yearly journey through our sky.

The figure eight that the sun traces through the sky each year is called the analemma, and you will usually see a depiction of this on a globe of the Earth. You could create one for yourself if you photographed the sun every few days with a fixed camera in a fixed location at noon time throughout the entire year. The vernal and autumnal equinoxes occur at the crossover points, and the winter solstice happens at the lowest point of this figure eight.

The nights will be getting warmer now, but they are also getting shorter. The summer triangle will have completely cleared the eastern horizon by 10 p.m. and only the top of the winter hexagon will still be visible low in the western sky. The summer Milky Way is also visible low in the southeast. Follow it across the sky right through the middle of the summer triangle and on into Cepheus the King, Cassiopeia the Queen and Perseus the Hero. The summer Milky Way is much brighter than the winter one in Orion, because we are looking directly into the center of our galaxy in Sagittarius. When we see the faint Orion arm of our galaxy in winter, we are looking out toward the edge of our galaxy, where there are far fewer stars than in the rich center.

To better experience the majesty and power of this vast, slowly swirling conglomeration of more than 200 billion stars that we call the Milky Way galaxy, our celestial home in which we travel the much vaster universe, just picture yourself looking down into the sky instead of up at the sky. Up and down have no meaning off the surface of the Earth because the sky is always all around us and we are just moving through it. Then simply imagine what would happen if your gravitational bond with the Earth would be cut along with that of the sun. The next strongest source of gravity is the center of our galaxy, so you would immediately begin falling into this center. It would take nearly 30,000 years at the speed of light to actually get there, but the point is to begin to sense the more subtle aspects of gravity throughout our solar system and galaxy.

Gravity is by far the weakest force in the universe, but it is the most all-pervasive force, keeping the whole universe together. Our mass is always the same, but we would experience very different weights depending which planets or moons we would go to. You would weight one-sixth of your weight in the weaker gravity well of our moon, two-and-a-half-times your weight on Jupiter, and only a couple of ounces on Phobos or Deimos, the two moons of Mars, which are only about 10 miles across.

Our sun and whole solar system are constantly traveling around the center our vast, 100,000 light-year-across galaxy at 140 miles per second. So if you stood outside just three minutes to better experience our galaxy, you would already have traveled 25,000 miles through it, which is once around the Earth. Even at that enormous speed, it still takes us nearly a quarter of a billion years just to make one orbit around our Milky Way, which is called one galactic year. Our sun and Earth have already completed 18 of these orbits in the 4.6 billion years that we have been here.

All the major planets are well placed for viewing this month. Brilliant Venus will be the first one you will notice in the sky. It can be seen in the West-Northwest and sets about two hours after sunset. Venus is slowly getting even brighter as it gets closer to us, but less illuminated by the sun. Notice that our sister planet will form a straight line with Castor and Pollux in Gemini around the middle of June.

Then follow the ecliptic eastward into the next constellation, which is Leo the Lion. You will see Mars very close to Regulus, the brightest star in Leo which marks the bottom of the sickle or backwards question mark that constitutes the head of the lion. Notice the nice color contrast of blue-white Regulus, the 21st brightest star in the sky, and the slightly brighter orange of Mars.

Then continue east into the very next constellation, which is Virgo. You will see Saturn glowing there with a soft golden light. The ringed planet is slowly getting fainter in our sky because it is getting farther away and its rings are very thin, only two degrees from horizontal. Notice that both Mars and Venus are catching up with slower moving Saturn, and they will form a nice triple conjunction in early August.

Jupiter doesn’t rise until 2 in the morning in the constellation of Pisces. The waning crescent moon will pass right above the king of the planets one hour before sunrise on the mornings of the 5th and 6th. Then Mercury will also make a good appearance in our morning sky during the first half of June.

There should even be a comet visible low in the morning sky by the middle of June. Named Comet McNaught, it was discovered last year by Robert McNaught from Australia, and is only one of 54 comets that he discovered.

It should easily be visible in binoculars and it might even become so with just the naked eye if we are lucky.

The largest asteroid, Ceres, which is now a “dwarf planet” since Pluto was reclassified, will be visible in binoculars passing right through the Lagoon Nebula in Sagittarius early this month.

JUNE HIGHLIGHTS

June 4. Last quarter moon is at 6:13 p.m. EDT. The Compton Gamma Ray telescope, launched one year after the Hubble Space telescope in 1990, was allowed to re-enter our atmosphere on this day in the year 2000.

June 6. Mars is less than one degree to the right and above Regulus tonight.

June 12. New moon is at 7:15 a.m.

June 14. The thin waxing crescent moon will pass just below Venus this night and the next.

June 16. Mars, Regulus and the moon form a tilted triangle tonight.

June 18. The dwarf planet Ceres, which is the largest asteroid and by itself contains about one-third of the mass of the entire half-million asteroids orbiting in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, will be at opposition tonight, shining at its brightest for the year.

June 19. First quarter moon is at 12:29 a.m.

June 20. Venus is less than one degree from the Beehive star cluster in Cancer tonight. Mars passed right over this same cluster two months earlier, on April 16.

June 21. The summer solstice is at 7:28 a.m., marking the longest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere.

June 26. Full moon is at 7:30 a.m. This is also called the Flower, Rose or Strawberry Moon.

June 30. On this day in 1908, a comet or asteroid exploded about 5 miles over Tunguska, Siberia, with a force of 10 megatons, or 200 times the power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The immense explosion leveled 80 million trees, but no crater was ever found.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.