Sky Watch

Meeting of Mars, Saturn To Sweeten June Nights

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 28, 2006; Page C02

The nectar of June evenings: Saturn and Mars meet at the Beehive Cluster in the middle of the month, and it will be a honey of a sight.

Just after dusk, Mars and Saturn emerge on the night stage in the west-northwest. The planets will appear to be close June 17. Before then they move toward each other. Saturn is brighter at zero magnitude (where you can see it from the city). At positive first magnitude, Mars is dim, with a red-orange tint.

The two planets converge at M44, the Beehive Cluster, in the Cancer constellation. M44 is a group of stars clustered together and was designated No. 44 by Charles Messier, an 18th-century astronomer. In a dark sky, it is easily seen as a fuzzy wisp with the naked eye.

From our vantage, Mars arrives at the meeting from lower in the sky, and Saturn arrives from the top. Several days before the conjunction, one can see both planets move closer. And after June 17, one can watch them split apart.

Combing other parts of the heavens: Mercury makes a cameo appearance. Find the fleet Mercury (zero magnitude, bright) in the constellation Gemini, just above the west-northwest horizon, after dusk. Look for it between June 10 and 20.

You can't miss Jupiter, the king of planets, in the south-southeast at dusk. At negative second magnitude (very bright), it can be seen the entire night.

For the morning sky gazers, the effervescent Venus (negative third magnitude, very bright) rises in the east-northeast just ahead of every sunrise. The edge of the sun appears to touch the Tropic of Cancer, which at that moment starts summer in the Northern Hemisphere. (In the Southern Hemisphere, it means winter starts.) This is the summer solstice, and it occurs at 8:26 a.m. June 21.

Down-to-Earth Events

June 5 -- Astronomer Lori Feaga explains spectroscopy at the University of Maryland Observatory astronomy open house at 9 p.m. in College Park. See sky wonders through a telescope after the lecture, weather permitting. Information: 301-405-6555; .

June 6 -- James Fleming, a professor at Colby College in Maine, examines the history of weather forecasting using satellites and other technology. His lecture, "A History of 'Cutting Edges' and 'Killer Apps,' " will be held at 8 p.m. at the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater at the National Air and Space Museum. Free. Ticket required. Information: 202-633-1000; .

June 11 -- If a super solar storm strikes, society's technical infrastructure could take a major hit. Sten Odenwald, who serves up heaven at the Astronomy Cafe ( ), explains what this means to Earth. The lecture will be held at 7 p.m. at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club meeting, Room 80, Enterprise Hall, at George Mason University. Information: .

June 17 -- See Mars and Saturn converge, and see Jupiter, the Big Dipper and the Summer Triangle as the National Park Service and the National Capital Astronomers host "Exploring the Sky" at 9 p.m. at Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center, in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. Information: 202-895-6070; ;

June 17 -- View the Mars-Saturn conjunction and the rest of the star-filled heavens with Sean O'Brien of the National Air and Space Museum from 8:30 to 11 p.m. at the Saturday Star Party at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, Va. Parking fee $4. Information and directions: 540-592-3556; .

June 20 -- Doug Hamilton discusses the summer solstice at the University of Maryland Observatory's open house at 9 p.m. in College Park. Scan the night sky through a telescope, weather permitting. Information: 301-405-6555; .

© 2006 The Washington Post Company