The month of June is named for the Roman god Juno, who was the wife of Jupiter. It also comes from a Latin word that means the “younger ones.” So let’s all feel younger this June as summer begins and our part of the planet has put on a warm, verdant hue to entice us outside. This year, the summer solstice happens at 6:34 p.m. June 20. Then, start looking up to become more aware of the greater context in which the earth is always moving.

There was a great chance for most of the country to gain this greater context on May 9. You didn’t even need to stay up late, but you did need a telescope and solar filter to see this fairly rare event. I watched for about five hours, even though clouds hid the sun for over half that time. The two best moments, first contact and last contact, were also clouded out, but it was still a joy to watch. I also looked at the sun through two telescopes with built-in hydrogen alpha filters, which allowed us to see any prominences over the limb of the sun and any dark filaments and hotter and whiter regions called plage on its surface.

Only a small percentage of people have been fortunate enough to even glimpse the sun, much less study it through one of these hydrogen alpha filters. I had plenty of time that Monday to do just that. It gives you a much greater sense of how we really are in direct contact with the sun through the dynamic solar wind that always rushes over and around us at nearly one million miles per hour.

It was all unfolding right there in front of us, only eight minutes away at the speed of light, but it was changing imperceptibly slowly unless you recorded it and played it back faster. Mercury was flying right along at 30 miles per second, traveling its full width of 3,000 miles every minute and 40 seconds. And still we couldn’t notice anything; it was almost as if we were all frozen in time, knowing something spectacular and rare was happening very close to us in space, but we could simply not grasp the full impact of this amazing phenomenon.

Mercury’s sharp and dark, perfectly black little circle, about 150 times smaller than the sun’s huge and luminous disk, contrasted nicely with a large group of much less sharp sunspots a little above our first planet. The sunspots had a grayer area around them called the penumbra and a darker and cooler region in their center called the umbra.

Staring at the sun for that long also gave me a much better sense of its great power, as it really does very provide for all life on earth. Every second, our very average sun is turning 700 million tons of hydrogen into helium, releasing four million tons of energy. We only receive one billionth of all that energy, or about one kilowatt per square meter of our surface, but that is sufficient if we can capture and store it.

Carefully watching Mercury’s motion across the face of the sun for all that time also made me think about what gravity really is, the force that keeps not only Mercury but also the earth and all the thousands and probably billions of other planets in our galaxy in perfect orbits. As Einstein proved, gravity is simply the curvature of space-time. As John Wheeler stated, mass tells space how to curve and space tells mass how to move.

A perfect example of that is the precession of the orbit of Mercury. That was a mystery for over 200 years as the best minds could not figure it out, thinking it had to be some kind of object affecting its orbit that they could never find. That’s because it didn’t exist. The huge mass of our sun warps the actual space through which Mercury is always moving, which explains the precession of its elliptical orbit. So we were seeing the effect of the very space-time curvature of the universe playing out right in front of all of us!

Three bright planets now dominate our evening sky. Mars was at its best in late May and is still much brighter and larger and redder than usual. Look for some surface features and the polar icecaps through a telescope. You could even spot one or both of the Martian moons now. We are already leaving Mars farther behind in our faster orbit around the sun.

Look for the softly glowing golden orb of Saturn as it emerges right at sunset, reaching opposition on June 3 and remaining in the sky all night. If the shadow cone of the earth were long enough, it would hit Saturn that day. But our shadow is only about a million miles long and Saturn is nearly one billion miles away, which is a thousand times farther than our shadow reaches. Both Mars and Saturn can be seen fairly close to each other, with Mars in Libra and Saturn in Scorpius near Antares, an orange supergiant fully 700 times larger than our sun. Watch the nearly full moon pass near Mars and then Saturn on June 17 and 18. Notice that Mars is now six times brighter than Saturn, which is very unusual.

Jupiter is moving in its direct, eastward motion again in the eastern part of Leo the Lion. Mercury reappears in our eastern morning sky 30 minutes before sunrise. It will only get seven degrees high, so you may need binoculars to see it. Look for the very thin waning crescent moon right next to Mercury on June 3, the same day Saturn reaches opposition.

JUNE HIGHLIGHTS

June 3: The very thin crescent moon is just below Mercury half an hour before sunrise.

June 4: In 2000, the Compton Gamma Ray observatory re-entered our atmosphere. It discovered many amazing things about our high-energy universe, including about one very powerful gamma ray burst every day for its 10 years in orbit. New moon is at 11 p.m.

June 5: In 1989, Voyager 2 flew by Neptune, transmitting live pictures of this planet. In 2012, the last transit of Venus across the sun took place that most of us will ever see. The next one is not until December 2117.

June 9: The waxing crescent moon will be near Regulus in Leo tonight and near Jupiter the next night.

June 12: First-quarter moon is at 4:10 a.m.

June 16: In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first woman in space.

June 17-18: The moon, Mars and Saturn will create a wide, flat triangle in our sky.

June 20: Summer starts at 6:34 p.m. This marks the longest day for us in the northern hemisphere, and the shortest day and the beginning of winter in the southern hemisphere. Full moon is at 7:02 a.m. This is also called the Strawberry or Rose Moon.

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


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