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Village Sky At Night with Brian Watkiss

Spot the satellite

Posted on May 17 2010 at 11:19:29 0 comments

Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peers into the Village night sky.

June, the month of the Summer Solstice (12:29 on the 21st) and of light evenings. In fact, because it is only twilight to astronomers until the Sun is more than 18 degrees below the horizon, for most of the month it never does get dark!

The longest day is a mere technicality because day length doesn’t vary by more than two minutes during the whole month, and anything that may line up with the rising Sun on the 21st will do so for a week or more either side.

So, what can we see in this twilight? Venus will be the most obvious object, visible all month but very low in the sky, in the north west, right after sunset, drifting past the stars Castor and Pollux. See if you can spot a very thin crescent Moon close to it on the 16th.

Sometime after 11 in the evening, it should be dark enough to see the planets Mars and Saturn. Mars is easy to spot, very orange, low in the west, chasing Venus into the sunset. It is moving across the sky with some pace now and will be seen to pass the star Regulus (the front foot of Leo), being closest on the 7th. Try observing every evening and watch Mars orbiting the Sun.

Slightly higher and to the left, Saturn is halfway between Regulus and Spica in Virgo, all three being about the same brightness. Sadly, around the end of June, we say goodbye to Saturn until next year and to Mars until 2012.

Comet McNaught R1 will wander across the north-eastern sky during the month. It isn’t due to be bright enough to see without binoculars, but comets are unpredictable and it may, just may, brighten up enough to put on a spectacular show. Fingers crossed!

With the Sun high in the sky, Full Moon will be very low and in June it is soon after the Solstice, on the 26th. If you are out and about at around 11.30 in the evening, look out for the rising Moon. It will be very low, (appear) very big and very orange, especially if there is a lot of dust (or ash) in the atmosphere! Actually this will be true for a few days before and after the 26th.

June is, however, an excellent time for satellite spotting. As soon as it starts to get dark, try getting as near to horizontal as possible (this is my favourite form of sky-watching!) and looking straight up or at the darkest patch of sky you can see.

If you have come out of a brightly lit room, it will take 20 minutes for your eyes to become dark adapted, so no bright lights please and ask neighbours to make sure their security lights only shine on their own property. You should soon spot an occasional “star” wandering across the sky at about the speed of an aircraft but with no flashing lights.

The most common objects that can be seen easily aren’t in fact satellites but the spent rockets that launched them. These are usually quite large and painted white but because they are uncontrolled, they nearly always start to tumble as they orbit so can be seen to vary in brightness.

Go to www.heavens-above.com for a list of visible objects, especially the International Space Station, which is now so large it is brighter than any of the planets. Be warned: satellite spotting with chums can soon become very competitive.


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