June’s Parade of Planets

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It gets dark early in Australia now and the nights are pretty cool, so you’re going to need a blanket, a pillow or two, your binoculars and perhaps a warm coffee while you stargaze. On a clear night depending on your age and your eyesight, you can see anywhere up to about 1,500 to 2, 000 stars. Introduce city lights and pollution, and you see less and less. Remember stars rise about 4 minutes earlier every night, that’s about 2 hours a month, and like the Sun and planets, they move from east to west during the night.

You can enjoy winter nights comfortably for hours on end if you dress properly and heed a few cold weather tips that everyone should know. You can do fine by piling on layers of ordinary clothes that are already around the house. What matters is how you wear them. Many thin layers are often better than a single thick one as the idea is to trap air pockets – ask any bird!

June nights offer the chance to see a planetary parade with all six planets known to the ancients in the sky waiting for you. It all starts early evening with the most difficult to find, Mercury, sitting low in the west. Look directly above and a little to the left of the point where the Sun set about 40 minutes earlier. For Mercury, you may need binoculars. Sweep this area of the sky looking for a star-like object. Good luck!

Second in the procession is the king of the planets, the gas giant Jupiter. You can’t miss it because it’s the brightest ‘star’ in the north-western sky. In a telescope Jupiter is a bright cream coloured ball with faint red or brown bands. Small telescopes will show Jupiter’s four brightest moons.

The third planet to find is Mars. Turn right from Jupiter, facing east, and you’ll see orange Mars. In fact it looks like a red star, about halfway up from the horizon. In a decent telescope, its small polar cap becomes visible.

King of the planets, Jupiter. The brightest 'star' in the north western sky
King of the planets, Jupiter. The brightest ‘star’ in the north western sky

Just after sunset our fourth planet, Saturn, is rising in the southeast. Saturn is a masterpiece in almost any telescope. The rings are easily visible as are a handful of its 62 brightest moons.  By the way, Saturn is the lightest of all the planets. If you had an ocean big enough, Saturn would actually float on water! Oh, and one word of warning, viewing Saturn for the first time through a telescope could get you hooked on astronomy! It did me.

Our fifth planet won’t be up for several hours. Venus can be found low and to the east in the morning twilight around 5.30 am. It outshines any other star or planet in the sky. How about the sixth major planet visible in May? Look below your feet. It’s the Earth.

Our national emblem

What do you think of when someone mentions the Southern Cross? Yep, that constellation of stars best seen from Australia. From Eureka to Ned Kelly, from Gallipoli and the minefields of Victoria, the Southern Cross on our flag has been the symbol for a rebellious and proud Australian spirit. It’s the smallest of the 88 modern constellations but probably the best known.  This constellation of five stars can be seen only from the southern hemisphere and is a reminder of Australia’s geography.

It’s always visible in our night sky. Stars of the Southern Cross appear on the flags of Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. The Southern Cross was written into the lyrics of Advance Australia Fair in 1901 – “Beneath our radiant Southern Cross.” The 1974 Australian America’s Cup Challenger also named ‘Southern Cross.’

Grab your telescope and look around the left side star of the cross. Below it you’ll find a beautiful star cluster called the Jewel Box, so named because it looks like millions of pieces of ground glass. They’re really colourful supergiant stars, reds and blues intermingled with yellows and whites. “Brilliant” is the word usually used to describe The Jewel Box.  It’s considered one of the most beautiful sights in the night sky.

Running rings around the moon

Hey, what’s that ring around the Moon? Have you ever seen it approaching winter, a huge circle completely surrounding the Moon? Well, it isn’t really around the Moon, it just looks that way. It’s formed when ice crystals in our atmosphere reflect the Moon’s light, bending it into a circle and making that ring effect we always marvel over.

This is usually a good sign it’s going to rain, and I bet it will, within a day or two in fact. By the way, old timers say if you count the number of stars inside the ring that’s how many days of rain you’ll get! See if I’m wrong next time you spot one.

Spot the space station

Here’s a good tip for those wanting to know when the Space Station is passing over your town. Sign up to NASA’s ‘Spot The Station’ program and receive free email or text message notices hours before the station flies overhead. I use it all the time. It’s completely free and safe to do, and you’ll be right there to catch one of the best sights in the night sky. To sign up for ‘Spot the Station,’ visit: spotthestation.nasa.gov.

Get David’s free astronomy newsletter and a free 323 page e-book called ‘The Complete Idiots Guide To Astronomy.


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