starry night above campfire

Eyes on the skies — June

Welcome to the Ontario Parks “Eyes on the Skies” series. This space (<– see what we did there?) will cover a wide range of astronomy topics with a focus on what can be seen from the pristine skies found in our provincial parks.

June formally ushers in summer, that time of the year when Canadians leave the confines of their homes and make their way to the wilderness. And stargazing is a uniquely memorable part of our experience.

Perhaps that’s because so many Ontarians live in areas with light pollution. City dwellers seldom see the stars and then, only the brightest ones. But to miss the stars is to lose our connection with the beauty and mysteries of the skies.

Heading outside? Here are our astronomical highlights for June, 2018:

The sun

The sun reaches its highest point in the sky on June 21 at 6:07 am. This day is also known as the “Summer Solstice,” when we can enjoy 15 hours and 27 minutes of light (see the March edition for more about solstices and equinoxes).

French River sunset

In Canada, June 21 is also National Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in recognition and celebration of the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of the Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Sunrise and Sunset times

The late sunsets in June provide people with the opportunity to enjoy spectacular sunsets.

June 1 June 15 June 30
Sunrise 5:38 am 5:34 am 5:38 am
Midday 1:23 pm 1:26 pm 1:39 pm
Sunset 9:09 pm 9:18 pm 9:20 pm

Learn about why sunsets can appear red here

The moon

The phases of the moon can be see depicted below:

lunar phases

June’s phases of the moon occur as follows:

  • Full moon — June 2
  • Waning gibbous — June 6
  • Last quarter moon — June 9
  • Waning cresent — June 13
  • New moon — June 17
  • Waxing cresent — June 20
  • First quarter moon — June 24
  • Waxing gibbous — June 28

The planets

The outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Uranus and Neptune) all rise in the late evening sky. Jupiter, having reached its closest point to the earth last month, is still very bright and a spectacular site in a telescope (see last month’s update ).

Saturn rises shortly after sunset and reaches “opposition” on June 27. At this time, Saturn is directly opposite the sun. Saturn is one of the original “wandering stars,” known in ancient times as being associated with majesty and grandeur. Of all the planets known to ancient societies, Saturn moved the slowest — it takes 30 years to orbit the sun!

When Galileo turned his “optic tube” towards the stars, he observed the rings and drew them in his journal. His views through his first telescope (in 1610) were quiet poor. However, his observations made just over 400 years ago (in 1616), were good enough to show him that Saturn was different from all the other planets. He didn’t understand what he was seeing but we have since learned that this planet is surrounded by an immense and spectacular ring system.

Like Jupiter, Saturn is a gas giant of immense size (around 120,000 km across). Its rotation rate is just over 10 hours which, compared to Earth’s 24-hour day, is quite speedy. Like Jupiter, Saturn’s rotation rate and chemical composition have created cloud belts, although they are fainter and show less contrast then Jupiter’s.

Though very large, Saturn is actually not very dense. If you dropped Saturn in a giant bathtub, it would probably float! Despite its lightness, its ring system earned Saturn the nickname “crown jewel of the planets.”

Fuzzy depiction of Saturn with rings

Saturn’s rings are made of ice and dust particles, ranging from thumbnail size up to a small building. They are most likely leftover debris from the initial formation and collisions of the planets and early solar system material. Saturn has over 60 moons at last count and it is believed that many of these moons help to “shepherd” the ring material into a constant orbit.

Saturn’s largest moon Titan, is larger than the planet Mercury and has its own atmosphere. Titan is easy to see in an amateur telescope. Titan goes through its own liquid cycle; like Earth, it rains on Titan. The rain pools in rivers, ponds and lakes which then evaporate, forming clouds. Unlike the earth, however, Titan’s liquid cycle is made up of methane rather than water.

Featured constellations: heroes and serpents

constellations: Hercules, Corona Borealis, Ophischus, Serpens Caput, Serpens CaudaThis month we will discuss the constellations of Hercules, Ophiuchus and Serpens.

Ophiuchus and Serpens remind us of the ancient Greek legend for the origin of modern day medicine.

For all of his impressive tasks and great power, the constellation of Hercules is actually one of the smaller ones in the sky.

Learn more about these star stories here.

Meteor showers and satellites

This particular time of the year does not have any specific meteor showers. However, it is actually one of the best times of the year to see artificial satellites. Like the moon, satellites shine by seeing reflected sunlight.

Normally, we can best see reflected light from satellites during twilight (a few hours after sunset and a few hours before sunrise).

In June, however, due to the apparent higher elevation of the sun, twilight lasts a lot longer than normal, giving us a greater opportunity of seeing satellites.

There are three types of satellites that are particularly interesting:

  • Rotating satellites slowly turn and if the solar panels are positioned just right, they reflect a brief blip of light towards us creating a “blinking satellite” effect
  • The International Space Station is so large that a tremendous amount of light is reflected from it, making it incredibly bright
  • Iridium satellites – are telecommunications satellites that are like rotating satellites. However, their antennae system produces a blip of light known as an ‘Iridium Flare”

Watch for these satellites at twilight this June and see if you can tell the difference. 

Come back next month to learn about the Summer Triangle!