In The Sky This Month – June 2009

This feature highlights a number of meteor showers, comets and asteroids which are visible during the month of June 2009.

Note: If anyone has pictures or observations of these objects/events and want to share them, send me a comment. I’ll post them here.

Planets

Mercury - Mercury will be a morning object during June. Though it will be best placed for observation around the date of June 20, it will be visible for a week after that date. In fact, the planet will be slowly brightening during the time, so later dates may be easier for observing this elusive planet. Mercury can be seen very low in ENE sky right before dawn. It is better placed (higher in the sky) for southern hemisphere observers.

Saturn – Saturn is the easiest planet to observe in June. By the end of twilight, Saturn is high in the southwest under the eastern part of the constellation of Leo.

This year Saturn is dimmer than usual. At magnitude +0.9 to +1.0, there are at least a dozen or more stars that are brighter than it. The reason is the rings of Saturn contribute a lot  to the brightness of Saturn. But this year, is a ring plane crossing year meaning that the rings are nearly edge-on. As a result, the rings are reflecting much less light in the Earth’s direction this year. Saturn’s appearance through a telescope closely matches the below image taken on April 23. In June, the rings will be even closer to edge on then they were in the image below.

The Moon will pass a relatively distant 5.8 degrees to the south of Saturn on the evening of June 27.

Jupiter and Neptune - Jupiter rises in the middle of the night. Other than Venus, it is the brightest “star” at dawn with a  magnitude of -2.5 to -2.7. Due to Jupiter’s location in the southern constellation of Capricornus , it never gets very high this year.

For those with a telescope or binoculars and a dark sky, Neptune is located within 1/2 to 3/4 degrees of Jupiter. Jupiter will be a bright magnitude -2.5 to -2.7 while Neptune will be a faint +7.9. That makes Jupiter nearly ~12,000 times brighter than Neptune. Even Jupiter’s 4 large Galilean moons are about a dozen times brighter than Neptune even though they are much smaller. The big reason for the faintness of Neptune is its distance from both the Earth and Sun. It is roughly 6 times further away from us and the Sun as Jupiter. The distance also explains its apparent small size of 2.3″. A good sized telescope will be required to see Neptune as anything other than a faint star.

Though Neptune wasn’t discovered until 1846, it was actually observed by Galileo on two occasions in 1612 and 1613. Similar to this month’s circumstances, Jupiter was passing very close to Neptune. Galileo observed and recorded Neptune as a star in the vicinity of Jupiter. There is also evidence that he noticed that Neptune had moved but didn’t follow up on it. So when you observe these 2 planets imagine what Galileo must have been thinking nearly 400 years ago.

Uranus – Uranus is located in western Pisces. It is bright enough to be seen in small binoculars at magnitude +5.8 but will still require a telescope in order to see it as anything other than a star (it’s disk is only 3.5″ across).

Venus - Venus continues to slowly climb higher every night. It is currently a morning object and is best seen an hour before sunrise low in the eastern sky. For Southern Hemisphere observers, it is near its highest above the horizon for this apparition. For Northern observers, Venus will continue to climb higher until early August.

For binocular and telescope users, Venus will start the month as a “half moon”, 25″ across and 47% illuminated. By the end of the month, it will have shrunk to 19″ across but will also have a gibbous phase illuminated at 61%.

Mars – Mars can be seen very low in the eastern sky all month long. At magnitude +1.1, it is only as bright as some of the brighter stars. Mars and Venus are located within 5 degrees of each other all month. Closest approach will occur on June 21 when Mars will pass within 2 degrees of Venus. The two will steadily move apart for the rest of the year.

Meteors

The month of June experiences no major showers and only one minor one.  June is the last relatively low activity month before the “fireworks” of summer.

Sporadic Meteors

Sporadic meteors are not part of any known meteor shower. They represent the background flux of meteors. Except for the few days per year when a major shower is active, most meteors that are observed are Sporadics. This is especially true for meteors observed during the evening. During June, 8 or so Sporadic meteors can be observed per hour from a dark moonless sky.

Major Meteor Showers

None

Minor Meteor Showers

Minor showers produce so few meteors that they are hard to notice above the background of regular meteors.

June Bootids (JBO)

The June Bootids are usually a very minor shower with very low rates, if any meteors,  seen in most years. On occasion the shower has put on good displays with as many as 50-100+ meteors per hour seen in 1998. Other years of enhanced activity include 1916, 1921, 1927 and 2004 when up to 30 meteors per hour were seen. The next predicted year for enhanced activity is next June in 2010. Though the shower is expected to be minor this year, the models aren’t perfect and anything can happen. Though active from June 22 to July 2, the peak night is June 27.

The parent of the June Bootids is the Jupiter family comet 7P/Pons-Winnecke. This comet was first seen by Jean-Louis Pons of Marsielles, France on 1819 June 12. Though it was recognized as a short period comet, a rarity at the time, it was lost until rediscovered by Friedrich Winnecke (Bonn, Germany) in 1858. Since then the comet has been observed at nearly every return including 3 returns when the comet passed exceptionally close to Earth (0.14 AU in 1921, 0.04 AU in 1927, and 0.11 AU in 1939). During the 1927 close approach the comet was bright enough to be an easy naked eye object. Since then the orbit of the comet has changed and moved further from the Sun and Earth. As a result, close approaches to Earth will not be possible until the comet’s orbit moves back closer to Earth’s around 2045.

Comets

Naked Eye Comets (V < 6.0)

None

Binocular Comets (V = 6.0 – 8.0)

Comet C/2008 Q3 (Garradd)

This is the surprise comet of the summer. From time to time what appears to be a faint run-of-the-mill comet will undergo an outburst and brighten substantially. This is the case with Comet Garradd which was discovered by Gordon Garradd of the Siding Spring Survey (Australia). He used the 0.5-m Uppsala schmidt telescope to discover this comet back on 2008 August 27.

The comet was a faint 19th magnitude at discovery. With perihelion expected on 2009 June 23 at 1.80 AU from the Sun, it was expected to brighten but only to about 12th-14th magnitude. Two weeks ago the comet was sitting at 15th magnitude. Bright enough for CCD imaging but too faint for nearly all visual observers. On April 20th Micheal Jager imaged the comet and found it too be much brighter. Over the next few days, visual observers were able to confirm the outburst and estimated the comet to be as bright as magnitude 8.9.

Now more than a month after its outburst, the comet continues to brighten and has recently been estimated at magnitude 7.2. With perihelion this month, the comet should be as bright as it gets though one never knows with outburst comets.

At the start of the month, the comet is located in the far southern constellation of Circinus. As a result, it is only observable from the Southern Hemisphere. This quickly changes as the comet rockets to the north and becomes visible for most northern observers by mid-month. The comet travels from Circinus through Centaurus and Hydra before ending the month in Corvus.

A finder chart for Comet Garradd can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Small Telescope Comets (V = 8.0 – 10.0)

Comet C/2008 T2 (Cardinal)

Rob Cardinal, an astronomer at the University of Calgary in Canada, discovered this comet last October. The comet was discovered as part of a survey at  the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory for new Near-Earth asteroids at high declinations. In fact the comet was found within 10 degrees of the North celestial pole. At the time of discovery, the comet was ~14th magnitude.

At perihelion on June 13th, the comet will pass within 1.20 AU of the Sun. The comet is currently magnitude 8.5 as it moves south from Gemini into Canis Minor in the evening sky. For northern observers, this comet is getting hard to see and requires a clear and dark western horizon right after dusk. It is easier to see for southern observers where it will be located higher in the sky. After the first week or 2 of June, the comet will no longer be observable from the Northern Hemisphere.

A finder chart for Comet Cardinal can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen)

This comet was discovered over 2 years ago on 2006 November 18 by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey north of Tucson. At the time the comet was located at 8.7 AU from the Sun which is nearly the distance of Saturn. The comet continues to move closer to the Sun and Earth and is currently 3.8 AU from the Sun and 3.4 AU from the Earth.

The comet is currently around magnitude 8.8 and will slowly brighten during the month.  It is moving near the border of Lacerta and Pegasus.  The comet is best seen in the early morning.

The comet will reach perihelion at a still rather distant 3.12 AU from the Sun on 2009 July 6. At that time, the comet will be 8th magnitude and visible in many smaller backyard telescopes and even binoculars from dark sites. Christensen should remain bright enough to see in modest sized backyard telescopes for all of 2009.

On the morning of April 21, I was able to observe this comet with both 30×125 binoculars and a 12″ dobsonian. The comet was much easier to see in the 12″. Observation was made under a moderately light polluted sky with a limiting mag of ~+5.5.

A finder chart for Comet Christensen can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Comet C/2009 G1 (STEREO)

Jiangao Ruan of China found this comet on images taken by the SECCHI HI-1B instrument onboard one of the STEREO spacecraft. The comet was first visible on images taken on April 3 UT. Similar to SOHO (a spacecraft that was used to co-discover Comet C/2009 F6 (Yi-Swan)), the two STEREO spacecraft study the Sun and its immediate environment.

With perihelion on April 16 at 1.13 AU from the Sun, the comet is now moving away from the Sun. It is also moving away from the Earth and should slowly fade during the course of the month.

The comet starts the month the far southern constellation of Phoenix and will only travel further south reaching Pictor by month’s end . It was never an easy object for northern observers and is now only observable from southern latitudes.

A finder chart for Comet Christensen can be found at Comet Chasing and Aktuelle Kometen (in German).

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

22P/Kopff

All of the above comets are long-period comets which will not return to the inner Solar System in thousands to millions of years. Comet Kopff is a frequent visitor with an orbital period of 6.4 years. Discovered on 1906 August 20 by August Kopff of Germany, the comet has been observed during every subsequent return except one.

The comet reached perihelion at 1.58 AU from the Sun on May 25. Though now moving away from the Sun, the comet still moving closer to Earth and will be located 0.78 AU from us at the end of the month. Recent observations place the comet at magnitude 9.0 which is about as bright as it will get this apparition. The comet starts June in Capricornus north of Jupiter. For most of the month, Kopff is movng eastward through Aquarius.

A finder chart for Comet Kopff can be found at Comet Chasing.

A nice collection of images can be found at the VdS-Fachgruppe Kometen (Comet Section of Germany) and Seiichi Yoshida’s Comet Homepage.

Asteroids

Binocular and Small Telescope Asteroids (V < 10.0)

(1) Ceres

Ceres is the biggest asteroid in the Main Belt with a diameter of 585 miles or 975 km. It is so big that it is now considered a Dwarf Planet. Classified as a carbonaceous (carbon-rich) Cg-type asteroid, there are suggestions that it may be rich in volatile material such as water. Some even propose that an ocean exists below its surface. Ceres is one of two targets for NASA’s Dawn spacecraft which is scheduled to visit it in 2015. This month Ceres fades from from magnitude 8.4 to 8.7 as it moves through eastern Leo in the evening sky. If you are observing Saturn with a telescope or pair of binoculars, try your hand at finding Ceres with one of the finder charts linked below.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

(7) Iris

Iris is an inner Main-Belt asteroid that can occassionally get as bright as any asteroid. This year, Iris will not get as bright but will still become a binocular object (albeit a difficult one) at opposition on July 4 at magnitude 8.7. During June, it is located in the constellation of Sagittarius at magnitude 9.7 at the start of the month and magnitude 8.8 at the end.

With a size of 240 x 200 x 200 km, Iris is the 5th largest stoney S-type asteroid. It was discovered in 1847 by John Russel Hind, the 1st of 10 asteroids he discovered.

A finder chart (needs to be flipped upside down for Northern Hemisphere observers) can be found at the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. Finder chart for Ceres from Heavens Above.

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