Jupiter’s jumping into the June evening sky

It’s more comfortable stargazing in June, but there’s a price to pay. You can’t get started until late at night. In most places the skies aren’t really dark enough until 10 to 10:30 p.m. Catch an afternoon nap and grab a lawn chair.

The transition in the southwestern Minnesota night sky is just about complete. The stars and constellations of winter are pretty much gone from our skies, all setting well before the sun. Among the few bright winter stars left are Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini the Twins. You can see them side by side in the low west-northwestern sky. A little higher above the western horizon look for a rightward leaning backward question mark. That’s the chest and head of the spring constellation Leo the Lion, with the bright star Regulus at the bottom of the question mark and marking the lion’s heart.

Face north and lie back on a lawn chair and you’ll easily see the nearly upside-down Big Dipper almost overhead. The Big Dipper isn’t an official constellation, it outlines the rear end and the tail of Ursa Major, or Big Bear. Just below it is the fainter Little Dipper standing sideways on its handle with Polaris, the North Star, at the end of the handle. The Little Dipper doubles as the actual constellation Ursa Minor, or Little Bear.

Not far off the end of the Big Dipper’s handle, you’ll see a bright orange star. That’s Arcturus, the brightest star in the evening sky this month. It’s a more than 25 times our sun’s diameter and around 37 light-years away. Arcturus is also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the hunting farmer, which actually looks more like a giant nocturnal kite with Arcturus at the tail of the kite.

Over in the east the stars of summer are making their initial evening appearance. Leading the way is Vega, the brightest star of Lyra the Harp. A little to the lower left of Vega is Deneb, the brightest shiner in Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the “Northern Cross,” rising sideways in the east. Deneb lies at the head of the cross and is at least 1,500 light-years from Earth. Just one light- year equals almost 6 trillion miles!

Without a doubt the marquee event this June is the return of Jupiter to the evening skies, the largest planet in our solar system. Jupiter is on the rise in the early evening southeastern sky. You can’t miss it. It’s absolutely the brightest star-like object in the night sky this month. On June 10, Jupiter reaches what astronomers call opposition, which basically means Jupiter and the sun are on opposite ends of the sky. Because of that Jupiter rises in the southeast as the sun sets in the northwestern sky. Jupiter and the Earth also reach their minimum distance from each other for 2019 at 398 million miles away.

With even a small telescope you should able to see up to four of Jupiter’s brighter moons dancing around the 88,000-mile wide planet in orbital periods of two to 17 days. You might also be able to see some of Jupiter’s cloud bands which will be orientated diagonally as Jupiter rises above the horizon. It’s best to wait a few hours after sunset to view Jupiter. Let it get higher in the sky, away from the blurring effects of Earth’s thick layer of atmosphere near the horizon.

If you stay up really late, until around midnight, you can watch the bright planet Saturn rising in the southeast sky a little behind Jupiter. Saturn is not quite as bright as Jupiter, but you’ll have no problem seeing it with your unaided eyes. Next month Saturn will reach its minimum distance to the Earth in 2019.

Throughout June you’ll also have a great opportunity to spot Mercury, the closest planet to the sun. Because of that proximity Mercury doesn’t stray that far from the sun in the sky. Mercury will be low in the northwestern sky during evening twilight for most of June. It will resemble a moderately bright star. Close by Mercury in the evenings this month will be the much fainter planet Mars. On June 5, the new crescent moon will be placed right between Mercury and Mars. This is a conjunction you don’t want to miss.

The full moon in June will officially be on June 17. Just before that, on the evenings of the 15th and 16th, the nearly full moon will be in a close conjunction right next to Jupiter as they both rise in the southeastern sky. On the 15th the moon will be just to the upper right of Jupiter and on June 16 the moon will be perched just to the lower left of the big planet.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at adventurepublications.net.