02 June 2006

Summer Evenings / Beehive Cluster

Summer arrives on June 21st this year as the Sun moves to its northernmost point in the sky for the year. The total time from sunrise to sunset is 14 hours and 45 minutes! Throughout June and July we have to be patient and wait until well past 9:00 pm to enjoy dark skies. But June promises to be a great time for skygazers as we will have excellent evening views of four bright planets. Saturn and Mars are prominent in the sunset sky. Mercury starts the month very low on the western horizon but moves up slowly each evening and will be more readily visible as the month progresses. Jupiter is the brightest object in the sky in June and can be seen in the south-east during the evening hours.

Mars, being much closer to Earth than Saturn, appears to move more rapidly across the sky than Saturn. Mars is a short distance "below" Saturn at the end of May. By mid-June, however, Mars will have moved along the ecliptic and will be extremely close to Saturn, about a full-moon distance between them. During this time, Saturn and Mars are also very close to a well-known star cluster known as the Beehive Cluster. By mid-June, with 7x or 10x binoculars, you should be able to capture Mars, Saturn and the Beehive Cluster in one field of view.

The Beehive Cluster is one of 110 special objects in the night sky that were classified into a famous catalog by the French astronomer Charles Messier over 200 years ago. The Messier Catalog includes many of the most beautiful deep space objects such as nebulae, clusters and galaxies. The Beehive Cluster is known as M44 in the catalog, and during the Summer some of the most lovely Messier objects are visible in the rich Milky Way regions of Scorpio and Sagittarius. The on-line encyclopedia "Wikipedia" has an outstanding collection of images and descriptions of all 110 objects in the Messier Catalog. I recommend a visit if you want to see more. Go to www.wikipedia.org and search for "List of Messier Objects."