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Astronomy Know How
Helping you See the Night Sky - Newsletter No. 20 June 2008
In this issue:
  1. June's Highlights
  2. Observing Noctilucent Clouds
  3. Summer Solstice
  4. World Wide Telescope
  5. What to Observe in the Summer
  6. News Links
  7. Become a confident Astronomer
  8. Contact Us
June's Highlights

Let's face it, June is not the best month in the calendar for astronomy, however, don't despair, as there is probably more to observe than you might at first thought.

In June, the skies from mid-northern latitudes never get truly dark, as the Sun can be less the 12-degrees below the northern horizon. This doesn't mean that you can't do any astronomy however. By 11pm UT (universal time) the skies are dark enough to see many bright stars and another advantage is that it is often warm enough not to have to put on a heavy overcoat and woolly hat! A quick sweep around the skies with simple binoculars can often be rewarding in the few minutes that you might have before bedtime and if you do that be sure to sweep through the milky way, that is now arching almost overhead. Here you will find star clusters and nebulae galore.

An area to offer you rich pickings can be found around the constellation of Lyra, marked by the bright star Vega, which can be found almost overhead. Sitting in a deck-chair is probably best to avoid a painful 'crick' in your neck for scanning this area. See if you can find the 8th magnitude globular cluster M56 east of the bottom of the constellation. Also binoculars should split the first pair of the famous double-double stars that are Epsilon Lyrae. You will need a telescope to split each of these stars into further pairs. You can find Epsilon Lyrae just to the north-east of Vega. If you have a small telescope, don't miss the Ring Nebula M57. This is the remains of the outer shell of gas that had been ejected into space by its parent star. If you would like to see what our Sun is going to do in about 4 billion years, take a look at M57! You should see what looks like a small smoke ring in space - truly amazing!

If you have a clear southern horizon you should be able to see bright Jupiter low down in this part of the sky this month.ALthough not well placed for observing from the northern hemisphere this year, it is still worth turning a small telescope on this giant of the solar system. You should be able to follow the 'dance' of the Galilean moons night by night and make out several belts on the planet itself.

Noctilucent clouds should put on a good show this year, or at least we think so... To find out more about this interesting phenomena, please see below.

See if you can also observe any Lyrid meteors this year. The shower peaks on the 15th of the month. Unfortunately, the Moon will interfere, but you may still be able to spot one or two. Have a go...

Observing Noctilucent Clouds

Noctilucent clouds are not, strictly speaking, an astronomical phenomena, but an atmospherical one. In fact, we don't know a lot about them or how they form, but we do know that they occur very high in the Earth's atmosphere at a height of 50 miles or more. We can't normally see them during daylight hours as the sun light it much too bright and penetrating to illuminate such high thin cloud. However we do have a better chance of seeing them at certain times of the year - normally during the summer months. This is because an hour or two after the sun has set and is about 10 - 12 degrees below the horizon the sunlight is still illuminating these 'noctilucent clouds' at such an angle that we can see them.

You can easily tell if you are looking at noctilucent clouds because they will always appear above the northern horizon (if you live in the northern hemisphere) about an hour and a half to two hours after sunset and have an 'electric blue' or 'pearly white' appearance and often look like waves on a clam sea. They are also much brighter than any residual lower level cloud that might just still be visible. They are however, fairly rare and there is no guarantee that you will be able to see them and you do normally need a clear horizon to get a good view. If you do spot them though, have a go at trying to photograph them to record them for posterity!
Summer Solstice

This year's Summer Solstice occurs on the 20th June at 23h 59m UT (Universal Time) at this moment the Sun will reach its highest declination of +23 degrees and 26 minutes of the year.

The word 'solstice' means 'stand-still' and it is at this moment that the Sun literally seems to stand still in the sky - but just for an instant! At it occurs after the sun has set from Europe, we will not be able to observe this, but as the Solstice time changes from year to year, this is not always the case. Of course once we are past the summer solstice we start the headlong rush towards winter!..

World Wide Telescope

If you haven't seen it yet, take a look at Microsoft's new virtual telescope called World Wide Telescope.

It is quite amazing! It brings to your desk-top a way of viewing the night sky that is incredibly powerful inasmuch as it uses the power of the Internet to seamlessly place images and guided tours of the night sky on to your computer screen.

I've only just started exploring its potential myself and I must say that I'm impressed. I understand that it is the brain-child of an astronomy enthusiast at Microsoft who took 4 years(!) to produce it. It does take up quite a bit of room on a PC, so it is best to check that it will work on yours, especially if you have an older machine.

You can find out all about it here


What to Observe in the Summer

Well, I've already touched on a couple of the things that you can observe during the summer months, but one object that I didn't mention is the sun itself. This of course needs great care as the slightest glance through any sort of optical aid (including camera view finders) will cause irreparable eye damage, unless the optics are properly filtered. The safest way to observe the sun therefore, is to project its image onto a piece of white card. You can use a small (read cheap) telescope or even a pair of binoculars for this, but don't forget to cap off the one side of the binocular, or your card (or worse) will go up in smoke!

Projecting the sun's image like this will enable you to see sunspots (if there are any), which are very of course very interesting in their own right. Keep a daily record (if you can) of their numbers and distribution.

  Here are some links to some other recent news stories that I thought you would find interesting...

Honoured IAC chief and the Queen connection - Rock classics written in Tenerife
A galaxy of scientific stars came together last month to honour one of Tenerife’s leading astronomical lights, Professor Francisco Sánchez, director of the Canary Astrophysics Institute (IAC), who was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Florida in recognition of his services to the stars - and, as it subsequently emerged, not just the galactic ones either.

Scientists witness start of star’s explosive death
In a stroke of cosmic luck, astronomers for the first time witnessed the start of one of the universe’s most fiery events: the end of a star’s life as it exploded into a supernova. more...

Pipsqueak Star Unleashes Monster Flare
On April 25, NASA’s Swift satellite picked up a record-setting flare from a star known as EV Lacertae. This flare was thousands of times more powerful than the greatest observed solar flare. more...

Hubble Telescope Project Postponed
The Hubble Telescope will have to wait a bit more than expected for NASA's final visit.. more...

  Do you want to learn more about the night sky and how to use telescopes and binoculars to see it better?..

My online course gives you all the essential information to be a good astronomer, without lots of jargon or difficult maths. You'll get loads of free bonuses and it also has videos and animations to help make the explanations clear and concise. So if you want to know what Sir Patrick wished for...

...please take a look at my eCourse called
'Basic Astronomy with a Telescope'. It's what Sir Patrick wished he'd had when he started out in astronomy!

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