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Summer solstice sunset at Stonehenge. Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/houseofcards/1361466718/">Alex Clark</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Summer solstice sunset at Stonehenge. Photo: Alex Clark, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

In the summer night sky: Solstice, aphelion, planets and skywatching events

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The Summer Solstice is this Saturday, and there's plenty to see in the summer night sky. St. Lawrence University astronomer Dr. Aileen O'Donoghue joins Todd Moe for a chat about the start of summer and a great season to view various planets in the pre-dawn and dusk skies.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

Todd Moe: I’m seeing Venus in the morning. It’s wonderful.

Aileen O'Donoghue: Oh, Venus is up in the morning, it’s very pretty. It’s just—as Venus does—it just hangs there above the horizon for a number of months. And then it plunges toward the horizon and shows up in the evening next winter. But in the evening we have a beautiful array of planets starting with Jupiter in the western sky. It’s the brightest thing in the sky, so just as it begins to get dark, it’s the first one that emerges from the bright sky.

TM: It’s not a plane, it’s a planet.

AD: Right, and people might see some colors It’s just to the left of a couple of bright stars—Castor and Pollux in Gemini—they make kind of an arc and Jupiter is the left-most one. You might see some twinkling and colors and that’s because of the atmosphere. There are all kinds of bubbles of air. You know, you come out of the grocery store and this little bubble of cold air follows you out of the grocery store. And so those little bubbles of different temperature air act like little lenses and prisms and that’s why objects close to the horizon seem to twinkle and change color and move around. Sometimes you watch it and say “Oh, well that’s a star” and then "No, it’s an airplane." So you have to look for a while!

TM: Stars don’t move; the airplanes do.

AD: So Jupiter is very pretty. And to its left and up high, about 30 degrees above the horizon, which is quite high, the sphinx, Leo the lion, is up there facing to the west, and so he’s always nice to find.

TM: What about Mars?

AD: Mars is even farther to the left—Mars is in Virgo and it’s the second brightest thing in the sky. It’s going to be on July 5 the moon is going to be just below Mars, it’s going to be half a degree. Some places on Earth will actually see the moon pass in front of Mars. It’s to the right of another bright star, Spica, and Mars is really reddish and it’s brighter than Spica. Spica is a little bluish because it’s a pretty hot star.

TM: So you can actually see a bluish tint to it.

AD: Yeah you can when you have contrast. I mean if you look at just one star, you know. When you have contrast you can see that Spica is a little bluish. And above those two, high in the sky right now, is the Big Dipper. If you face south and kind of bend over backwards you’ll see the Big Dipper. And if you follow the arc of the handle it’ll go to Arcturus, which is a very bright star—not as bright are Sirius but it’s up there—it too, not as bluish as Spica, but you continue on that same line and make an arc to Arcturus and a spike to Spica. So Mars is to its right, and to the left of Spica, to the east, you’ll see Saturn emerging and it also is quite bright. So it’s next to, not as bright a star but a star with a wonderful name that I bet everyone is getting to know this year because Saturn is hanging out in Libra

Zubenelgenubi right next to the eclipsed moon on May 4, 2004. Photo: NASA
Zubenelgenubi right next to the eclipsed moon on May 4, 2004. Photo: NASA
TM: Your personal mission is to get…

AD: Is to get everybody to know— Zubenelgenubi! And Mars is moving across the sky. If you look at it—not night to night, you really won’t notice the motion—but if you look at it and then it gets cloudy for a few days and you look again at Mars, you’ll be able to see it's moved. It’s moving toward Spica and toward Saturn. So, we’re going to be able to see this distance close over the summer as this whole pattern marches one degree per day toward the west as we go around the sun about one degree per day. Our kind of midnight window shifts one degree, and we see that shift in the stars all moving to the west about a degree per day.

And the moon is also going to get very close to Saturn. It’s going to be only a degree and a half north of the moon on July 7. So July 5 and July 7 are going to be very pretty for that moon display.

Aphelion is July 3 this year. You'll be a million miles cooler. Graphic: NASA
Aphelion is July 3 this year. You'll be a million miles cooler. Graphic: NASA
But, there is another big event in early July. For all those people who are true northerners who are already suffering from the heat. I know it starts to get to them as soon as the trucks start to fall through the ice. But, on July 3 at 8 pm the Earth will be at its farthest from the Sun in this orbit. We’ll be 94.5 million miles from the Sun. So you know, if you suffer in the heat, just be glad for that extra million miles.

TM: It makes a difference.

AD: We’re also, of course, at our farthest distance from the Sun, the gravitational pull is at its weakest, so we’re at our slowest. So we’re kind of just, you know, floating along in the bayou out here as we go along the far end of our orbit. Which is why we have more days between the spring equinox and the autumn equinox. There are more days than there are between the autumnal equinox and spring, as we can tell because February is a short month. Yeah well that’s real, that’s astronomical, because we’re going fast in December when we’re close to January. When we’re close to the summer, we’re going slow right now.

TM: So Saturday, first day of summer. Is it officially summer at what time?

AD: It’s at 6:51 am it when the Sun, eastern daylight time, is when the Sun will actually be at its summer solstice position which is the farthest north in our sky. Or if you run around the Earth with the Sun directly above your head, you’ll be right on the Tropic of Cancer. And so the Sun will be right above the Tropic of Cancer at that moment. So we call it the first day of summer, but many cultures have had it mid-summers day. Yeah, the druids.

TM: Right, exactly.

AD: So what they celebrate—we celebrate the solstice season and the equinoxes as the beginning of the season—they celebrated them as the center or the middle of the season. And then the cross-quarter days were the beginning and ends of their seasons. So the beginning of summer for the Celts and some other cultures, the Tibetans, is May Day—Beltane. And so that begins their summer and they end summer around August 2 on Lúnasa, in Celtic culture. The other cross-quarter days— we don’t think much about Beltane and Lúnasa— All Hallows Eve is still in our calendars as is Groundhog Day and those are the cross-quarter days when other cultures begin and end their seasons.

TM: So Saturday the first day of summer, or mid-summer.

AD: Yes, yes.

TM: I know in Scandinavia it’s a day of big bonfires and of course in Scandinavia…

AD: Why do they have bonfires? It’s light all night! 

TM: You think they would do that in the middle of December or something. You’ve got a couple of events you want to mention.

AD: Right, speaking of the Sun being at its highest in the northern sky, of course its midwinter for the Australians, but it’s International Sun Day for astronomers. So astronomers are really trying to highlight our local star which is an utterly fascinating thing that we’re still trying to understand, you know. We’ve been looking at it for millennia but have only had instruments to look at it for a couple hundred years.

So, the Adirondack Public Observatory, which I’m involved with, which is at Tupper Lake, we have our roll-off roof observatory. And so we will have telescopes and you can look at the Sun and yes, we have filters so you’re not going to burn your eyeballs out. And we’ll have all kinds of activities from 11 am to 4 pm. The Wild Center, there are also events going on there, so Tupper Lake is going to be a great place for science this Sunday, June 22.

TM: Rain or shine.

AD: Rain or shine, we’ll have events going on. We might not be able to look at the Sun ourselves, but there are observatories all around the world and somebody will be looking at the Sun.

So, not quite in anticipation of that event, we have another event Thursday night, this Thursday, we have prominent astronomer David Aguilar, the Director of Science Information at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the author of number of books through National Geographic. He is going to come speak at the Wild Center on the quest for alien worlds and alien life because, you know, we’ve been finding all these planets around other suns.

TM: Earth-like planets.

AD: Right, some Earth-like planets. So he’ll be giving a lecture again at the Wild Center. He’ll have a book signing— he writes kids' books, so it’ll be good. He’s got a book “Alien Worlds” through National Geographic. So that’s this Thursday. The book signing will start at 6:30 pm, a lecture at 7:00 pm at the Wild Center. Tupper Lake is just the heart of Adirondack science this week and weekend.

So please come to those at the Adirondack Public Observatory. We’re really making progress and we’ve really got a nice facility now and we encourage people to come down and check it out—and you know—come see the stars.

To see Saturn, I was down there a couple of weeks ago on a Friday night, and a woman who had never seen Saturn through a telescope with her own eyes was so amazed that she had to keep going and looking and then looking at the far end of the telescope to see if we had a…

TD: A slide, or something there. It is amazing if you’ve never seen a planet—Jupiter or the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. Like you say—it’s not a photo.

AD: No, and it’s real, and it’s amazing what a difference it makes to actually see it with your own eyes. Come join us and enjoy these nice days of light. We will start gaining dark again on Sunday.

TM: But this is the time of year if you’re out camping or something and you’re staying up late and laying out there in the sleeping bag, it’s an amazing time to have.

The Coma Berenices or Hair of Berenice (or a pond in Arabic mythology)
The Coma Berenices or Hair of Berenice (or a pond in Arabic mythology)
AD: Oh yeah, and straight up basically is the Big Dipper, and if you lay down and face up, you can kind of pick out the great bear. The handle of the Big Dipper is the bear’s tail. Which is odd, since no bears have long tails. But if you look below the Big Dipper you will see that there are three pairs of stars. They’re very close pairs and they’re kind of in a line. Those form the feet of the bear and kind of tucked under the tail over toward Arcturus there's a cluster of stars. With a dark sky you see kind of this big blurry area.

It's called the Hair of Berenice, the Coma Berenices. In some Arabic legends that cluster of stars was a pond. And those three pairs of close stars are the footsteps of the gazelle. Because Leo the Lion was just below the Big Dipper. The lion twitched his tail and scared the gazelle. So those are the three leaps of the gazelle, as he was drinking in the pond of Coma Berenices, and then got scared and ran across the sky. And those footprints also make the feet of the big bear. So you’ve got the tail, you can kind of find a back leg, and then the feet and something for the head.

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