Night Sky

May Night Sky

Spring is moving steadily onto Summer and the frosts are diminishing. May is a month where we lose the night time and are simply bathed in astronomical twilight as the Sun is approaching its highest northerly declination and never retreats far below the horizon. This same physics leads to the land of the midnight Sun as your latitude increases. To some the end of May is the death knell for serious observing until late Summer but there is the alternative view; the medium to bright objects are still readily visible, the nights are warmer and you can spend time either just starring at the sky with...

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April Night Sky

For me, April is galaxy month. The Virgo and Coma galaxy clusters offer much the best galaxy field for amateur telescopes in the entire night sky, with scores of galaxies available to observers at a reasonably dark site with an 8" telescope; hundreds if you have a 12". April is on balance the best month to see them because they reach their highest elevation due south before midnight.(You can still see them in later months, but then you have less night time available as the evenings stay light so late.) The map below gives a sense of both galaxy clusters, as well as several groups of interesting...

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March Night Sky

March provides the best opportunity this year to see Mercury in the evening sky for us northerners. Mercury is never very far away from the sun in the sky, so for evening appearances you have to catch it after the sun has set, but before Mercury does. The geometry of our position on the earth's surface, and how that relates to the ecliptic (the plane in which  that the planets of the solar system orbit) means that the best opportunity for this is around March. This is when the sun is "moving" northwards in our sky at the maximum rate, and a planet setting after the sun is therefore approximately...

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February Night Sky

Mars is technically visible in the night sky for much of the year, but for reasons I have explained before, its distance from the earth varies by a huge factor, and much of the time it presents only a very small disc where your chances of seeing anything more than a bright red blob are small. That is true this month, but there is added interest, since at the end of the month Mars will pass very close - less than a degree, so in the same field of view at low power in some telescopes - from Uranus. The closest approach is on February 27. If you have never seen Uranus, or have difficulty in finding...

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January Night Sky

Our early evening skies this month  are dominated by Venus shining a brilliant white in the south west, setting at around 9pm. It is an impressive sight with the naked eye, but  a disappointing one in a telescope. The wall to wall toxic cloud cover of our near twin planet presents a uniformly white appearance over the illuminated part of the disc, which for most of this month resembles a half-moon. And that is all you will see. It is so bright that any variation in the tone of the cloud cover will be impossible to detect. If you want to observe Venus through a telescope it is better to do so in daytime....

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December Night Sky

The recent run of clear nights has been good for observing, but also, of course, cold. This will be a test of your cold weather clothing. I find people new to observing may bring sensible coats, hats, gloves etc, but often  neglect their feet. You really need to bring boots that provide some insulation, and ideally are waterproof, plus thick socks. Wellies won't do. Mountain walking boots are fine. If you have skiing gear, that should do very well. The other problem is the telescope. Lenses and mirrors exposed to the night sky will tend to dew up, though dew shields and various electrical heating...

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November Night Sky

This  is a good month for enjoying galaxies in the Andromeda region, as it is pretty well overhead at about 11 pm towards the end of the month when the Full Moon is out of the way. Star (!) billing, of course, goes to M31, the Great Andromeda Nebula. I usually find it via the distinctive "W" shape of Cassiopeia - just follow the pointy part of the W down by one length of the letter, and a bit to the right, and there it is. If you are in a reasonably dark location, and your eyes are dark adapted, it should be obvious. ( If it is not, then it is a poor night, and you might as well head for the pub!)...

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October Night Sky

If you have been struggling to find Neptune low in the south in September, then October offers an easier target as Uranus comes to opposition on the 15th of the month. It is still in Pisces, but is now well above the celestial equator, and is continuing its steady climb north in our skies (and it will be back at the Gemini/Taurus border where Herschel first discovered it in the early 2030s, having by then done just three orbits of the sun since ). However, there is no need to wait that long for a good view! Uranus at opposition is magnitude 5.7 or so, and so in theory visible with the naked eye under...

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September Night Sky

Neptune comes to opposition on September 2, and this is the best month to try to observe this elusive planet. It might seem strange that Neptune is so much harder to find than Uranus. The two planets are comparable in size and nature, and both are in the outer reaches of the solar system. But Neptune is much further out from the Sun than Uranus - an average of 4.5 Billion km to Uranus' 2.9 Billion. This has a double whammy effect on Neptune's apparent brightness from the Earth. The distance of Uranus to the Sun is only about 63% of Neptune's, but that means that Neptune only gets about 40% of the amount...

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August Night Sky

August brings one of the year's major meteor showers - the Perseids. The term shower is rather is misnomer, as it implies a constant stream for its duration. What you get is a steady trickle, typically of one every few minutes. The maximum is due on the night of 11 Aug. There will be a first quarter moon, but very low in the south, so it should not provide much visual interference. All you need do is to get a comfortable seat looking skywards, ideally roughly facing east, but the direction doesn't matter much. And then just watch for as long as you feel comfortable. If it suits you to stay up late,...

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