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Imagine the ecliptic, or sun’s path

Tonight – June 17, 2018 – try to imagine the ecliptic, or sun’s annual pathway, across your nighttime sky. Being able to visualize it from your favorite spot to observe the heavens is helpful, because the moon always moves approximately along this path, and so do the planets. Once you get a sense of it, you’ll know to look for certain bright stars and planets along this nighttime pathway. And indeed, on these June and July 2018 evenings, three bright stars and three planets – and, on June 17, the moon – can help you visualize the ecliptic crossing your sky.

So, first of all, what is the ecliptic? It’s defined by the plane of Earth’s orbit around the sun. But astronomers – who frequently need to think about multiple vantage points simultaneously – also speak of the ecliptic as the yearly path of the sun in front of the constellations of the zodiac.

The ecliptic isn’t the same thing as the celestial equator, which is another imaginary great circle, above Earth’s actual equator. It isn’t, because Earth is tilted on its axis with respect to our orbit around the sun. The video below is a visual explanation of why the plane of the ecliptic is tilted with respect to the celestial sphere, the imaginary sphere of stars surrounding Earth. The animation was created to teach college and high school astronomy, and there’s no sound.

So don’t expect an explanation in the video. Just look, and think about the various planes involved.

Was that helpful in giving you a sense of the ecliptic?

Now – look below – and let’s think about some real objects you’ll find in the real sky in June 2018. The first chart below shows the moon’s location with respect to the star Regulus on June 1. The second chart below extends the line of the ecliptic eastward, through the planet Jupiter and star Spica. The third chart below extends the line of the ecliptic still further eastward, through the stars Zubenelgenubi and red Antares, and finally to the golden planet Saturn.

On the night of June 1, 2017, the moon is located to the east of the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo the Lion.

Extend the line of the ecliptic further east on June 1, 2017, and you’ll come to Jupiter, now the brightest starlike object in the evening sky. It shines close to Spica, the constellation Virgo’s brightest star. Spica and Regulus serve as “fixed” reference points to the whereabouts of the ecliptic on the sky’s dome; that is, they’re there on June evenings when the planets and moon move away.

Extend the line of the ecliptic even further east on June 1, 2017, and you’ll come to the stars Zubenelgenubi and Antares. Keep going – nearly all the way to the eastern horizon – and you’ll find the bright planet Saturn.

So there you have it, the ecliptic – marked by three bright planets (Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) and three bright stars (Regulus, Spica and Antares) – on June 2017 evenings.

If you watch over the next several nights, you’ll enjoy seeing the moon move – more or less – along the ecliptic. The moon doesn’t orbit Earth in exactly the same plane that Earth orbits the sun, but nearly so. So its monthly path across our sky is nearly the same as the sun’s annual path. The moon moves eastward in orbit, so, in the coming evenings, it’ll be moving eastward (toward the sunrise direction), passing each of these stars and planets we’ve just talked about.

On June 21, the moon will be near Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo

On June 23, the moon will sweep close to Jupiter, the second-brightest planet (after Venus)

On June 25, the moon will swing north of Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius

On June 27, the moon will pair up closely with Saturn, which is also at opposition

On June 30, the moon will swing north of Mars, soon to replace Jupiter as the second-brightest planet

See the sky charts below:

Watch for the moon to pair up with Jupiter on June 3 and then couple up with Spica on June 4. In a dark sky, you might see the constellation Corvus the Crow, which points at Spica.

Watch for the Strawberry Moon to sweep past the star Antares and the planet Saturn on June 8, 9 and 10. Read more.

Have fun watching … wishing you clear skies!

Bottom line: Use your mind’s eye to imagine the ecliptic, or sun’s path, crossing your night sky.

Bruce McClure