If the clouds ever dissipate, this should be a great month for planets and galaxies. Venus, Jupiter and Saturn are visible, and they are great markers for the ecliptic. The Virgo cluster of galaxies is high in the southern sky after sunset.
The constellation Virgo is in the large gap between the many familiar winter constellations surrounding Orion and the summer Milky Way constellations around Sagittarius and Scorpius.
To find Virgo, look for the bright star Spica. The other stars in Virgo are rather dim in comparison. To find Spica, start with the handle of the Big Dipper. The handle is curved, and the mnemonic is that the curve “Arcs to Arcturus” and then, continuing a rough arc, it “Speeds on to Spica.”
The constellation Virgo is located where the ecliptic crosses the celestial equator, but neither of those lines are marked on the sky.
The celestial equator is that imaginary line that divides the northern stars from the southern stars. In the sky, it makes a line that rises due east and sets due west, but only passes overhead for someone standing on the Earth’s equator. In Durango, it is shifted to the south by our latitude, or just over 37 degrees. The celestial equator appears to be in the same location year-round.
The ecliptic is the path the sun takes through the background of stars, so is tilted like the Earth’s axis. Although it is fixed on the sky, it appears to wobble as the Earth rotates. However, you can follow the ecliptic from west to east, by starting at the sunset point and making a line going through Venus, Jupiter and then Saturn. You should see that this line moves from the north side of the celestial equator to the south side on the eastern horizon.
Dozens of galaxies can be seen in Virgo with a small telescope. Eleven have Messier designations. One of my favorites is not even part of the Virgo cluster. M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, is about 10 degrees west of Spica.
Currently, Venus is in Gemini, and Jupiter is a bit to the east side of Cancer. Venus will reach its greatest eastern elongation June 6. That is the day it will stay up longer in the evening sky than any other day.
If there is a particularly clear evening before the moon rises, you might try to see if you can see a shadow cast by Venus. By the end of June, Venus and Jupiter will have moved within a half a degree of each other.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Charles Hakes is an assistant professor in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is director of the Fort Lewis Observatory.