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Hal Kibbey
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Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2005

STAR TRAK

Venus, Saturn and Mercury cluster in the evening sky

Photo by: NASA

Venus

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Venus, Saturn and Mercury will gather very low in the west-northwestern sky after sunset during June. The three planets will huddle closest on June 24, but they will be in a tight cluster for the second half of the month.

At the beginning of June, Venus, by far the brightest of the three, will be the first to appear above the west-northwestern horizon, setting an hour after the sun. As the sky darkens, yellow Saturn will gradually become visible to the upper left (south) of Venus near the two bright stars of the constellation Gemini, Pollux (on the left) and Castor. Venus will be below these two stars, slowly climbing toward Saturn as Saturn descends. The crescent moon will slice through this group of planets and bright stars on the evenings of June 8 and 9, adding to the spectacle. Binoculars will make all of these objects easier to find in the glow of twilight, and you'll need a clear view of the west-northwestern horizon.

Mercury will join the party in midmonth, becoming barely visible above the western horizon by June 13 to the lower right (north) of Venus. Mercury will rapidly climb higher toward Venus each evening after that -- Mercury does everything quickly -- and on June 24 it will appear to catch up with its much brighter companion. Mercury will remain very close to Venus for the rest of the month while Saturn drifts away to their lower right (north) toward the western horizon.

Jupiter will dominate the evening sky high in the south after sunset in early June, gradually moving into the southwest as the month goes by. The huge planet will outshine all the stars in the constellation Virgo, and it will be easy to spot until it sets well after midnight. Jupiter and its moons will still be a fine target for telescopes during June.

Mars will be high in the east-southeast by the start of morning twilight. The red planet will brighten considerably by month's end, becoming worthy of telescopic viewing in its own right when it is highest.

Viewing information and graphics for the planets are available at http://www.space.com/spacewatch.

Summer Triangle

The brightest star high in the east-northeast after dark in June will be Vega. The brightest star to its lower left (north), by two or three fist-widths at arm's length, will be Deneb. About the same distance to Vega's lower right (south) will be Altair rising in the east. These three stars form the huge Summer Triangle, which will cross the sky high overhead during the night. Details about the Summer Triangle and what it encloses can be found at http://www.idialstars.com/stri.htm.

Solstice

The sun will reach the June solstice on June 21 at 2:46 a.m. EDT (6:46 Universal Time), marking the start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and winter in the Southern Hemisphere. For the next six months in the Northern Hemisphere the days will be getting shorter.

Officially the first day of summer, the June solstice is also referred to as Midsummer because it is roughly the middle of the growing season throughout much of Europe. Most societies in the Northern Hemisphere, ancient and modern, have celebrated a festival on or close to the June solstice. The themes common to all of these festivals are fertility and agriculture.

"Solstice" is derived from two Latin words: sol meaning sun, and sistere, to cause to stand still. This is because the sun rises higher in the southern sky each day until the summer solstice. On the day of the solstice it appears to rise to the same height above the southern horizon as the day before, and in the days afterward it is lower, heading back toward its low point at the winter solstice. In this sense, the sun "stands still" at the peak of its journey across the summer sky before it starts downward again toward the southern horizon.

This time of year, between the planting and harvesting of the crops, was the traditional month for weddings. June remains a favorite month for marriage today. In some traditions, newly wed couples were fed dishes and beverages that featured honey for the first month of their married life to encourage love and fertility. The surviving vestige of this tradition is the name given to the holiday immediately after the ceremony, the honeymoon.

Moon phases

The moon will be new on June 6, at first quarter on June 15, full on June 22 and at third quarter on June 28.