Summer is Officially Here!
Temperatures have increased and clear skies have been prevalent, but the official start of summer is the day of the Summer Solstice, which is today! Summer Solstice is the day of longest daylight for Earth’s northern hemisphere. With social distancing in effect, stargazing to see the constellations and planets visible in the summer sky is a great activity to do with friends and family.
Wait for sunset, then watch for the constellation Leo to set in the west. It’s a grouping of bright stars that make a shape like a backwards question mark; these are the lion’s mane.
The Big Dipper is high in the evening sky, making it a good guide to orient by. Follow the arc of the handle down to the bright star Arcturus, which has a reddish tinge. It has that color because, although it is made of about the same amount of material as the Sun, it is an older star and has consumed the bulk of its fuel and transformed into a Red Giant, inflating to around 25 times the size of the Sun.
At just 36 light years away, Arcturus is in our local stellar neighborhood. Although there are clues to the effect, it is currently unknown whether Arcturus is a binary star system or has at least one planet orbiting it.
Coming up in the southeast is the Summer Triangle. The short edge of this triangle is at the top, so its overall shape is like an arrowhead pointing downward. Follow along in the direction it’s pointing and you will find two more bright points of light – Jupiter and Saturn! Best viewing is after midnight.
Don’t forget to look for Mars! Plan to rise early before sunrise rather than waiting up all night. It will be a distinct orangish point in the southeast before sunrise. Over the course of the summer, Mars will be visible progressively earlier in the night, becoming as bright as Jupiter and clearer in a telescope. This is because Earth is getting closer to Mars. The point of closest approach is in October, called opposition. This when Mars will be exactly opposite the Sun from our point of view, at an actual distance of about 39 million miles.
Venus will also become prominent in the morning sky over the summer, and Mercury will make a brief appearance in the pre-dawn hours in late July.
Stay updated on the GRPM’s social media for more astronomy tips, and learn more through the Grand Rapids Amateaur Astronomical Association by visiting graaa.org.
By: John Foerch
The Grand Rapids Public Museum is a partner with the Grand Rapids Amateaur Astronomical Association which operates the Veen Observatory in Lowell, MI.