Now that it’s summer — well, almost; that doesn’t officially happen until the summer solstice on June 21 — skygazing nights are filled with magic. Meteor showers don’t start firing up again until July, but this month, Jupiter is the star of the sky show. Mars, Mercury and Saturn also make appearances, and observant skywatchers will also be able to see the moon’s tilted orbit.
Let’s start with Jupiter, the largest of the planets. It’s at its biggest and brightest in June, rising at dusk and remaining visible to the naked eye all night. Grab a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, and you’ll be able to see its four largest moons. And, NASA says, you may also be able to see a trace of the banded clouds that encircle the planet.
The best night to gaze at Jupiter is June 10, when it reaches its annual opposition with the Earth and the sun. That means all are aligned in a straight line, with Earth in the middle.
Related: 2019 Guide To Meteor Showers, Supermoons And More
Mars and Mercury will appear like close twins after sunset on June 17-18. This requires careful timing to make sure you have a clear view of the western horizon. The two planets will only be a few degrees above the horizon and be advised that the farther north you live, the closer to the horizon Mars and Mercury will be.
“But it should be spectacular if you can manage it,” NASA says on its website.
More fun is in store June 14-19. The June full moon — known as the full strawberry moon because this is the month the berries begin ripening — is on June 17, and it shines in the days before and after in a spectacular lineup with Jupiter and Saturn. The view changes nightly as the moon orbits the Earth. If you pay close attention to the moon’s movement from night to night, you’ll be able to see something special. The chart below explains it best, but imagine a line between Saturn and Jupiter.
The moon follows a different path as it moves between the two large planets, showing that its orbit is slightly tilted with respect to the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The tilt in the moon’s orbit shows why a lunar eclipses — which occur when either the moon or the Earth passes into the other’s shadow — are special.
“With the moon orbiting Earth every month, you might think there would be a lunar or solar eclipse every month as well — with the sun, moon and Earth forming a nice, straight line,” NASA says. “But instead, its tilted orbit means the Moon misses this lineup most months, crossing Earth’s orbital plane at the right time for a lineup with the Sun only a couple of times a year.”
Look Ahead To Summer Meteor Showers
While you’re marking your summertime skywatching calendar, keep these dates in mind:
July 29-30 — Southern Delta Aquarids meteor shower: Running from July 21-Aug. 23, this average meteor shower peaks overnight July 29-30 and produces about 20 meteors an hour. Produced by debris left behind by comets Marsden and Kracht, it radiates from the constellation Aquarius, but meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. The waning crescent moon won’t present a big problem, and best viewing conditions are after midnight.
July 26-27 — Alpha Capricornids meteor shower: Running from July 11-Aug. 10, this shower rarely produces more than five meteors an hour, but is known for producing fireballs. The parent object of this minor shower, which peaks July 26-27, is comet 169P/NEAT.
Aug. 12-13 — Perseids meteor shower: The Perseids are the king of the summer meteor showers, running from July 17-Aug. 24 and peaking overnight Aug. 12-13. In normal years, they produce from 50 to 75 meteors per hour, but a nearly full moon could block out the faintest meteors. They’re so bright and numerous that a good show could still be in store. The Perseids, produced by the comet Swift-Tuttle, radiate from the constellation Perseus, but can be seen from anywhere in the sky. The best viewing times are after midnight.