June begins and ends with a beautiful slender crescent moon hovering near Jupiter as if to greet and then say goodbye to the King of the planets for those who like to observe the stars and planets in the evening. Jupiter is high in the west as the month begins and shines brightly even though it is quite far away from us now and appears much smaller in binoculars or a telescope. Jupiter appears to be just 32 arc-seconds wide now in a telescope (remember it was 45 arc seconds wide at opposition last January). Jupiter will be on the other side of the Sun from us (superior conjunction) on July 24 and will become a morning object in August. Even though it is much smaller, there is still a lot to see on this amazing planet as it races down to the horizon. If you have access to a telescope don't neglect pointing it at Jupiter for one last look because it won't be returning to the evening skies until November.
To the west of Jupiter, toward the spot on the horizon where the Sun has set, is the tiny planet Mercury. Mercury will be easier to spot earlier in the month when it is still quite high (for Mercury) above the horizon. On June 7th, for example, Mercury will be about 13 degrees from the horizon at 8:30 - just after sunset. If the skies are clear of clouds and you have a good view of the horizon, you should be able to pick the little planet out in the twilit sky, especially if you use a pair of binoculars to help you. Mercury will be 18 degrees from Jupiter and 15 degrees from the sun. Wait until the sun is below the horizon before you start scanning with binoculars, though. Remember, blindness can result almost instantaneously from looking at the sun through binoculars or a telescope - don't risk it! By the next weekend Mercury will be setting so close to the sun that it will not be visible in bright glare of the nearby sun so try to find it as early in the month as you can.
While we say goodbye to Jupiter and Mercury, there are still two other bright planets to track and observe in the evening skies this month. Following the ecliptic from Mercury and Jupiter back toward the east, we next come to the very bright "Red Planet" Mars. Mars is easy to see without any optical aid such as binoculars or a telescope. Its distinctive red color
makes it easy to identify in midst of the stars of Virgo. In fact, this month Mars remains very close to the brightest star in Virgo, Spica - some might say the ONLY bright star in Virgo, but that is a different subject. Remember the easy way to find Spica is by using the little phrase, "Follow the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper away from the bowl until you come to bright Arcturus, then speed on to Spica. If we just extend that line a little farther past Spica, we will come to Mars. Easy! On June 7th we can get a little help from our friendly moon. On that night the moon will be just 2 degrees to the left of Mars. On the next night the moon will have moved just to the left of Spica. The moon will be quite bright, being just a few days from being full (June 13th) but this could be a good thing, because only Spica and Mars will be visible that close to the bright moon and all the other fainter stars will be washed out making them easier to identify.
We have saved the best for last. The treat I have been waiting for, for some time is a good Summer time appearance of Saturn with its beautiful rings wide open. Finally, this summer we get to enjoy exactly that. For the past few years the geometry of our orbit and that of Saturn has meant that Saturn's rings have been close to edge on from our point of view. This month though, the rings are on display, quite wide open and spectacular looking. I was out last night admiring them between passing clouds and I was thrilled at how beautiful Saturn looked! Ever since that first view in my little Sears 50mm telescope, Saturn has been my favorite of all the wonders of the night sky. Saturn is in the constellation Libra and gets a visit from the moon on June 9th when the moon is about 8 degrees to Saturn's right and then the next night the moon moves to the other side of Saturn, about 5 degrees east or left of the ringed planet.
I hope you get many opportunities to get out this summer and enjoy the stars and planets our Father placed in the heavens for our help and our enjoyment. Clear Skies!