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What's in the Sky - June 2024

If after the comet, the eclipse, and the auroras of recent weeks you still haven't collapsed from all that astronomical excitement and exhaustion, then get ready for some sensational summer stargazing! With weather warming up, June is a great time of year to enjoy mild evenings under starry skies with your telescope or astronomy binoculars. Here are a few of Orion's top suggestions for June stargazing.

Awesome Alignment
Jumping right in on June 1, earlybirds will be rewarded with a very picturesque alignment low in the eastern sky. Between 4am and dawn you'll see the waning crescent Moon flanked by Mars on its left and ringed Saturn on its right. Both planets will be shining brightly at magnitude 1. Then on June 2 and 3 the even thinner Moon sidles up closer to Mars for an equally compelling sight.

How About More-a the Aurora!
After May's epic, worldwide auroral extravaganza, we definitely would like an encore, please! Well, while we can't promise a similar light show for June, we are buoyed by the fact that the Sun is currently very active as we approach the predicted peak of the solar activity cycle in mid-2025. So there is a real possibility of more auroral bombshells in the months to come. Will one come this month? Who knows? But we'll be waiting, with phones and cameras at the ready, and you should too!

Colorful AuroraA colorful, tornado-like auroral display, captured on May 11 near Mosier, Oregon.

Set Your Sights on Two Special Spirals
Around the time it gets dark in mid-June, two glorious, face-on spiral galaxies M51 and M101 will both be in a great position for viewing and imaging. Look for M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, to the southwest of the star Alkaid at the end of the Big Dipper's "handle." Scan the sky to the northeast of Alkaid to find M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy. Under very dark skies, these distant galaxies can barely be detected in smaller telescopes, but a 10" or larger reflector will reveal much more impressive views. If you're viewing from an especially dark location, try to resolve the delicate spiral arms of M51 in a 10" or larger telescope.

Gems of the Summer Triangle
By 10pm in mid-northern latitudes, the Summer Triangle, comprising beacon stars Vega (in Lyra), Deneb (in Cygnus), and Altair (in Aquila), will be fully visible above the horizon. Several celestial gems lie within its confines, including the Ring Nebula (M57), the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), open star cluster M29, and the visually challenging Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888). To catch a glimpse of the elusive Crescent, you'll almost certainly need an Orion Oxygen-III Filter in a larger telescope.

Go for Some Globulars!
Globular star clusters are densely packed balls of stars that are concentrated towards the center of the Milky Way. June skies offer some of the finest globular cluster viewing opportunities. While you can detect most globular clusters in 50mm or larger binoculars, a moderate to high-power eyepiece in a 6" or larger telescope offers the best chance to resolve individual stars. In the constellation Hercules, look for M92 and the "Great Cluster", M13. In Scorpius, track down M4 and M80. The constellation Ophiuchus is home to six globulars: M10, M12, M14, M107, M9, and M19. Can you spot them all?

Notice Any Noctilucents?
Starting this month, folks at higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere (typically 50 to 65 degrees, but occasionally at lower latitudes) may notice some thin, electric-looking clouds called noctilucent, or night shining clouds. They are only visible through mid August, and only in morning or evening twilight, when the Sun is below the horizon yet still illuminates these high-altitude wisps. Noctilucents are the highest clouds in Earth's atmosphere and are composed of tiny water ice crystals. June is a great month to try to witness these unusual clouds. So have a look to the west an hour or so after sunset, or to the northeast an hour or so before sunrise, and see if you notice any noctilucents!

Noctilucent CloudsImage of noctilucent (night shining) clouds courtesy of Matthias Süßen. Used by permission.

June Challenge Object - Colorful Planetary NGC 6572
Discovered in 1825 by Wilhelm von Struve, the planetary nebula NGC 6572 is bright enough, at magnitude 8.1, to be seen in a humble 60mm refractor telescope from a dark sky site. But it is oh so small! At only about 14 arc-seconds in diameter, it takes a lot of magnification to distinguish it from a star. High magnification will also reveal that it is not round, like many planetary nebulas, but oblong in shape. The easiest way to find NGC 6572 is to look in Ophiuchus for a greenish "star" about 3 degrees south of the magnitude-3.7 star 72 Oph. Well, at least some observers see its color as green; others perceive it as blue. What color do you see?

All objects described above can easily be seen with the suggested equipment from a dark sky site and on a night when bright moonlight does not overpower the stars.