2018 06 03 stars horizon.jpg

The waning moon is rising later and later each night, on its way towards New Moon on June 13, which means that we are in the "sweet spot" window for star-gazing all the way from now until sometime after New Moon. 

Immediately after New Moon, the very thin waxing crescent which will be visible in the west just after sunset will still not pose any problems for star-gazing, until it begins to reach its first quarter about a week later on June 20.

This time of year provides some fantastic constellations to reward your star-gazing efforts, if it is at all possible for you to get outside after dark and if you have clear skies and relatively low light pollution. If you are in an area with heavy light pollution, and if you have the ability to get to an area with less light pollution, there are some gorgeous stars for you to see which should make it worth the effort.

Additionally, the constellations that are now rising into view are among the most mythologically-significant constellations in the night sky, and feature in many of the Star Myths preserved in various cultures on the different inhabited continents and islands around our globe.

Above is a screen shot from the outstanding free open-source planetarium app Stellarium, available for download at stellarium.org. This star-chart depicts the constellations from the perspective of a viewer in the northern hemisphere, at a latitude of approximately 35.6 degrees north latitude, at nearly 9pm. It is staying light very late now in the northern hemisphere, as we approach the June solstice (which earth passes through on the calendar date of June 21 this year), so it is best to begin your star-gazing efforts around 9pm or later, if possible.

As you may have already noticed, two beautiful planets are now visible in our night sky. Venus is shining prominently in the west after sunset, just below the two brightest stars of the Twins of Gemini (the Twins are now sinking down below the western horizon as the sun is setting). You can see Venus below Castor and Pollux of Gemini on the right side of the star-chart above, as you face the page.

Note that in the chart above, I have drawn in the horizon using a purple line. Of course, the horizon in your location will vary based on the terrain. Also, the horizon relative to the constellations will vary based on your latitude. If you download the Stellarium app, you can see an approximation for any latitude or location you choose.

Also, note that the horizon in the star-chart curves upwards on either edge as we face the image: this is because the planetarium is simulating the feeling of being outside, where you can turn to your left or your right and see constellations in all directions. In order to understand what the constellations which are located towards the left and right edges of the star-chart above will look like when you actually go outside and try to see them, you must imagine that the left and right horizons will be "flat" (horizontal) when you turn in that direction -- and that the constellations shown in the chart above will relate to that horizon as they do in the image above. 

In other words, the constellation Ophiuchus (labeled, near the left-hand side of the chart above, near the letter "E" which indicates the cardinal direction "east") will lie even "flatter" against the horizon when you look for Ophiuchus outside than it is depicted in the star-chart above -- because the horizon (and Ophiuchus) in the chart above are "wrapped" upwards on either edge of the chart.

This "wrapping" or "curving" means that the Twins of Gemini (and the brilliant planet Venus, below the Twins) will be even lower in the actual sky than they look in the chart above, because you must imagine that when you turn towards the west, the horizon shown in the chart (which "curves" upwards) will "flatten down" towards horizontal as you turn in that direction.

For a blog post discussing just a few of the mythological connections of the Twins of Gemini, see for example this previous post entitled "The Dioscuri." 

The other very bright planet which is visible immediately after sunset is Jupiter, shining with a benevolent yellow light just above the rising delta-shape of the zodiac constellation Scorpio. Jupiter is presently in the constellation Libra, which is a challenging constellation to locate on most nights, but which is made easier to trace out due to the presence of Jupiter. Now is a particularly good time to try to do so, if you are so inclined and can get outside to a clear and dark sky.

Scorpio can be seen rising up out of the eastern horizon in the star-chart above (which, again, depicts the situation just before 9pm from a perspective of a northern-hemisphere observer). As the night progresses and the earth continues turning towards the east, Scorpio will rise further and further above the horizon, and Jupiter will remain ahead of the front of the Scorpion as they cross the night sky.

The constellation Ophiuchus "stands above" Scorpio in the heavens, and Ophiuchus is a very rewarding constellation to locate, especially if you have never done so before. Because Scorpio is rising in the early evening, and is therefore almost vertical, Ophiuchus (which will be standing vertical once Scorpio begins to lie flatter, later in its arc across the heavens) is "standing" sideways, so that the constellation is almost completely horizontal in the early hours after darkness falls.

The best way to find Ophiuchus right now is to realize that the constellation "stands over" Scorpio, and then to look from the rising form of Scorpio towards the east (which is to your left, if you are facing south and standing in the northern hemisphere of our planet), and as you do so, try to make out the large rectangular body of the constellation, and the triangle-shaped "head" of Ophiuchus that is above the oblong rectangle (see star-chart outline above).

You will probably be able to find the triangle-shaped "head" of Ophiuchus most easily -- but note that this triangle also has a fourth star nearby to it, at the foot of the constellation Hercules, which is above Ophiuchus in the sky. You can see the constellation Hercules marked on the above chart, with his forward leg almost appearing to be "stepping on" the head of Ophiuchus.

Here is a previous post which gives additional instruction on techniques for locating Ophiuchus in the sky, and which also includes links to some myths involving the constellation. Here is another post with some more discussion of myths involving the constellation and those in its immediate vicinity.

Ahead of Scorpio and also ahead of Jupiter (which itself is leading Scorpio), you can also trace out the shape of the incredibly important constellation Virgo the Virgin. Virgo can be a challenging constellation to locate in the sky, because it is largely composed of fairly faint stars, but during this part of the month when the moon is not competing with the stars, you should be able to see the entire outline of Virgo, if you know where to look. 

As with all of the constellations in our night sky, they are easiest to find if you use the constellation-outlining system suggested by the brilliant author H. A. Rey in his book The Stars: A New Way to See Them. And, as this previous post explains, his system also appears to be the system employed by the world's ancient myths (and that informs ancient artwork found in different cultures around the globe), even though he never mentioned this connection, to my knowledge, and may or may not have been aware of that connection himself.

To find Virgo, it is easiest to look for her brightest star, Spica, which will be the brightest star near Jupiter, but on the "other side" of Jupiter from the Scorpion. If you look at the star-chart above, Spica is located at the hip of the outline of Virgo. 

One easy way to locate Spica is to use Corvus the Crow, which appears to be staring directly at Spica. This previous post explains how to find Corvus and Spica. 

Another way to locate Spica is to follow the "arc" suggested by the sweep of the handle of the Big Dipper (shown near the top of the star-chart above) and trace that arc down to the large orange star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes and then on beyond Arcturus down to Spica.

Once you have located Spica, you can trace the rest of the outline of Virgo. Note that Virgo is a very large constellation -- much larger than it appears in the star-chart on this or any other page. Look next for her "outstretched arm," which is one of the distinctive characteristics of Virgo, and which features prominently in many of the world's ancient Star Myths. 

Virgo's outstretched arm reaches up towards Bootes, but in between the outstretched arm and Bootes is the faint but delightful constellation Coma Berenices, or "Berenice's Hair." This previous post gives more instruction on finding Coma Berenices in the night sky, and discusses some of the mythological significance of this constellation. If you can locate it in the sky, it is well worth the effort to do so -- and now is a particularly opportune time to try.

Ahead of Virgo in the procession of constellations across the sky from east to west we find the large and bright zodiac constellation Leo the Lion. Leo is composed of many fairly bright stars, and thus should be quite easy to trace out in the night sky. One hint for locating Leo is to realize that Leo and the Big Dipper are "locked" together somewhat like the cogs of a gear, such that the "back" of the Lion faces towards (and almost seems to match) the shape of the lower edge of the Dipper, even though the two constellations are separated by a stretch of sky. They are like two puzzle-pieces which match and would fit together, but which are placed slightly apart on the "table" of the heavens. Here is a previous post discussing that fit.

The proximity of Virgo and Leo in the night sky helps to explain why many goddesses are described as riding on lions, or riding in chariots drawn by lions, or seated in thrones accompanied by lions, in Star Myths from various cultures, as discussed briefly in this previous post (and in many of my Star Myths books). More about this connection can be found in various posts regarding the goddess Durga of ancient India.

Ahead of the majestic "muzzle" of Leo the Lion is the very faint constellation Cancer the Crab. It is located between the Twins of Gemini and the head of Leo the Lion. The constellation Cancer contains a faint but absolutely dazzling (as well as mythologically important) cluster of stars known as the Beehive Cluster. Numerous previous posts have remarked upon the significance of this beautiful heavenly feature, and have given tips for locating it in the sky. Here is one of those previous posts entitled "The Blessing of the Beehive Cluster." At the end of that post you can find a series of links to other posts which give additional tips for finding the Beehive.

Winding its way below the entire length of both the constellations Virgo and Leo you can find the sinuous serpentine form of Hydra, which has a "hood-shaped" head pointing towards the west -- the hood making Hydra resemble a cobra-snake. The ring of stars which forms the head of Hydra is fairly bright and easy to spot, just ahead of Leo and slightly below.

Other constellations visible in the star-chart above, and thus visible in the "prime time" star-gazing hours this time of year, include Bootes and Hercules, with the brilliant Northern Crown between them. Bootes is fairly easy to find, using the above-mentioned technique of following the "arc" of the Big Dipper's handle towards the brightest star in Bootes, Arcturus, and then tracing out the rest of the constellation from there. Look for the faint but distinct triangular "cap" or hat on the top of the large head of Bootes. Look also for his distinctive "pipe" which runs from his mouth towards the handle of the Dipper.

The Northern Crown (Corona Borealis) is located immediately behind the head of Bootes. It is a dazzling constellation, and one that is very easy to trace out, if you are looking in the right part of the sky for it.

The constellation Hercules is always somewhat challenging to identify, and slightly more difficult to locate right now (because still rising up and thus not in its most easily-identifiable orientation in the heavens). Hercules will be a bit easier to identify later this summer. However, you can look for the constellation's distinctive square-shaped head. Hercules is close in the sky to the constellation Lyra, which contains the very bright star Vega -- the fifth brightest fixed star in our night sky, according to H. A. Rey.

Hercules is an extremely mythologically-important constellation, mentioned in many previous posts. See for example this previous post about ancient artwork which incorporates the distinctive aspects of the constellation's outline, or this post about the gods Shango and Oya. See also this post about my interpretation of the celestial foundations of the recently-discovered Pylos Combat Agate, and this video which I made discussing these celestial aspects of the ancient artwork on the stone.

I hope that this brief tour of some of the glorious constellations visible in the night sky this time of year will be helpful to you, and that you will have the opportunity to go out and see them in person, if it is at all possible for you to do so.