Our neighboring worlds of the Solar System will be spectacular this summer. There are five planets visible to our unaided eyes, and you will be able to see Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in the evening skies of our Driftless Area. Three easy ways to tell a planet from a star: 1) planets wander through the fixed stars of the constellations, 2) planets don’t twinkle as stars do, 3) planets pass through the southern sky as they rise in the east and set in the west.
Venus is hard to miss in the western sky. Start looking for it around 9pm after sunset. It will be especially bright and beautiful near the Waxing Crescent Moon on June 15 and 16 and visible until around 11pm. A small telescope reveals that Venus is in a waning gibbous phase and is about 75% illuminated. Binoculars will help to bring out the Earthshine on the Moon. This is sunlight being reflected on the dark side of the Moon by the clouds and oceans of Earth. Mercury can be challenging, but look for it close to the western horizon both nights. Check back with Venus on June 19 when it passes in front of the shining stars of the Beehive open cluster. Venus spends June moving through Gemini the Twins, Cancer the Crab, and Leo the Lion.
Mars continues to brighten and rise earlier throughout the summer as it makes its closest approach to Earth later in July. Watch for Mars and the Waning Gibbous Moon rising together on June 2 just before midnight and on June 30 around 10:30pm. In a small telescope, you can start to make out Mars’ polar cap and some of its surface features. Keep watching as Mars grows bigger and brighter this summer. Mars with its ruddy color spends the month in Capricorn the Seagoat.
Jupiter was at its closest to Earth last month but remains almost as bright. Look for it on June 23 near the Waxing Gibbous Moon as the sky begins to darken. A view through a telescope lets you spot some its cloud bands and its four largest moons. Jupiter can be found in Libra the Scales near its bright stars with the fun names of Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi.
Earth passes between the Sun and Saturn on June 27. Saturn rises with the Full Strawberry Moon around 8:20 that evening. If you can, try to view through a telescope and be wowed. Saturn is at its closest to Earth and its rings are at about their widest. Saturn with its creamy color abides in Sagittarius the Archer.
Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and Solstice Stargazing on June 16 (8-10pm). Starsplitters of Wyalusing has a public program (8:30pm) at Wyalusing State Park on June 2. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer a “star party” on June 9 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes. Enjoy the easy travel to other planets this summer as five worlds drift through the dark skies of the Driftless.
John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.