Contributer. Chris Reeves. Photos by Christopher Hill (unless otherwise stated)
Our Sky at Night feature describes what can be seen in the night sky above Ravenstonedale throughout the year. We are blessed with minimal light pollution in Ravenstonedale which, on a clear night, enables stunning views of the stars and planets. The Milky Way is not only clearly visible but has shape. Planets are easily identified, satellites are regularly sited and shooting stars are not rare.
Hello, my name is Chris Reeves, a keen amateur astronomer, and I was invited by Stan Frost to write about the Ravenstonedale night sky. We are indeed fortunate to be situated in one of the few remaining ‘dark sky’ areas left in England, as most of the country’s skies have been spoilt by light pollution. Yet here, on a clear, dark night it is still possible to see into our own Milky Way galaxy spilling across the night sky.
My interest started about 8 years ago when my husband gave me a telescope for a birthday present. Anyone who has tried to master the art of seeing the heavens through a telescope will know it is not easy to begin with and it has taken me on a long journey of discovery. Each month, I will share with you information about some of the constellations that you will be able to see. As the Earth moves around the sun, rotating constantly, we are viewing different areas of the Universe each season. Due to the predictability of the constellations, they will always be the same each month throughout the year (in our lifetime anyway) whereas the planets and the moon follow different cycles. I shall include information about the planets in our solar system but the best way to find out when to see them each year, is to buy an annual star chart or look online on www.heavens-above.com
If you are only just starting to explore the night sky, I would not recommend buying a telescope until you have found out which type would suit your needs the best. There are so many to choose from now and I would recommend getting advice from a specialist shop and/or a local astronomy society, whose members are usually willing to share their knowledge. Instead, I would suggest buying a planasphere (less than £10) or perhaps a simple star chart to find your way around the sky. Next choice would be good pair of astronomical binoculars (mine are Helios 10 x 50 and have been excellent).
In my opinion, it’s hard to beat the view of the night sky from the top of Ravenstonedale village, as you leave the street and house lights behind and head in the direction of Artlegarth, near the Irish bridge. It is then possible to see a 360 degree vista which can be truly breathtaking! So, what constellations do you recognise? As you reach the top of the village in January (23:00) you will see my favourite constellation – Orion – ahead of you. Standing tall, you can see the three ‘belt’ stars and the three ‘sword’ stars (more to follow next month). To the right you may see the ‘7 Sisters’ (the Pleiades), while around to the left is perhaps the most easily recognised – The Plough or Big Dipper. It really does help to know and be able to find a few key constellations and find your way from there, as you will see through the coming months.
Meanwhile, to start us off, here are some great pictures of the planet, Venus, as you may never have seen it before. Venus is more brilliant than any other astronomical object, except the Sun and Moon, and is an absolutely dazzling spot of light, pale yellow in colour. Many think it might be a plane at first but it does not move, or perhaps even a UFO! Being the closest planet to us, she is a mere 26 million miles (41 million kilometres) away and is within our inner solar system. If we were able to see Venus through a good telescope we would see that its shape appears to change as it orbits the sun (similar to how we observe the Moon). If you look at the photographs you can see how Venus changes from a small gibbous disk (on the left) to a large, narrow crescent. These photos were taken by an enthusiastic, astronomer colleague of mine, Christopher Hill and he will also be contributing each month. Venus can usually be seen in the evening or early morning, along the same pathway as the sun.
We can get some wonderful clear skies in January, so wrap up warm and choose a night when there is little or no moon and see what you can observe.
I hope you were able to find Venus in the evening or early morning sky, such a bright, beautiful object to observe.
Now, let’s look outside our own solar system in February, searching further into our Milky Way Galaxy, and to the most magnificent constellation found in the winter sky – Orion.
Orion (See large image)
Orion is one of the easiest constellations to recognise, lying due south at around 21.00 hours (that is over the top of Wild Boar Fell). Known through ancient times as a hunter, a giant or a warrior, the stars form shapes where he appears to wear a sword, is carrying a club in his left hand and a shield in the right. To locate, first look for the three bright stars which look like studs on a belt, then below this, to the stars forming the sword shape. Moving further out, you can then see four bright stars, one at each shoulder and both feet.
So let’s have a closer look at the stars. I shall describe them as you see them with naked (unaided) eyes or through binoculars (a telescope may be different). At the top left shoulder is Betelgeuse (pronounced BET-el-jooze) and is the type of star known as a red supergiant. It is huge (over 500 times the diameter of the Sun, big enough to fill the whole orbit of the planet Jupiter) and fluctuates in size and brightness. It has a distinctive orange colour and is 430 light years* away from us.
At the opposite corner (bottom right foot) is Rigel. Blue-white in colour it is also a supergiant and has a much hotter surface than Betelgeuse - 50,000 times as luminous as our Sun! It is nearly twice the distance away, at 770 light years* from Earth. (When we look at a constellation like Orion it is easy to assume the stars are linked in some way - but such variance in distances shows that is not so).
Look next at the area near the centre of the sword, hanging down below the belt. Closer examination (especially with binoculars) will show a bright smudge – this is the famous Orion Nebula (also known as M42) and is a luminous cloud of gas, mainly consisting of hydrogen which shows red in the photo. At its centre is the place of star-birth, where new stars are still being born and is 1500 light years* away. (See photo showing M42 and the smaller M43 above).
Masses of stars and nebulae make up the Orion constellation but these are the main ones to recognise. Once you have found this amazing constellation you can really start on a journey of discovery. This is truly a reason to buy a book on the constellations and solar system and to learn far more about the universe. This is only a taster!
Next month I will tell you about a global project to monitor the stars in Orion and add your feedback into the information pool. Meanwhile, enjoy the clear skies.
* For information –
A light year is equivalent to 6 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km) - all very difficult to comprehend!
I trust you all know where Orion is by now and those of you who tracked it down for the first time enjoyed finding this distinctive constellation. If you are interested there is an annual computer project each March involving Orion, to monitor how dark our skies are. To take part, go to www.globe.gov/globeatnight. All you need to do is download the information, then by looking at the various charts, decide how many stars you can see in Orion, at the time specified in March. With 110 countries participating, this really is gathering light pollution data from an international perspective. It is a good opportunity to enter our dark sky data.
Meanwhile, we will have a look at another planet this month, one that has to be the all-time-favourite heavenly object to see through a telescope. It is, of course, Saturn! Truly memorable through a telescope, it only looks to be an oblong shape through binoculars. However, on a clear night, it can easily be seen naked eye, looking like a bright, pale yellow star. Find out where to see it from the annual star chart or www.heavens-above.com.
A gas giant and orbiting in our outer solar system, Saturn is more than nine times the size of the Earth and could contain our planet 764 times!! What make it so special are the exquisite rings, composed of innumerable icy chunks that range in size from fine dust to house-sized blocks. If you look at this months’ wonderful photographs of Saturn, you will see how they differ. Christopher took the first one in February 2008, while the most recent one taken in February 2009 shows the rings edge-on – like an onion on a cocktail stick, he says. The view of the rings changes as Saturn moves around the Sun, resulting from the tilt of the planet’s rotation axis. As Saturn orbits the Sun once every 29 years, the aspect of the rings changes slowly. Some years they will be majestically spread out but it is only once every 14 years they will be edge-on, as they were in 2009.
I could not resist adding the last photograph which I took in May 2007, just one quick snap using a small Canon automatic through a rather large telescope! It shows an occultation, where Saturn disappeared behind the Moon, here it is just re-appearing. Almost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, perfect timing!
There really are some amazing things to be seen in our Universe.
Orion will soon be slipping away for the summer but before he goes I want to show you one of the very best star clusters in the sky. To the west (right) of Orion is situated the constellation of Taurus (the Bull) and it is this direction we are heading. You will need to go out about 21.00 – 22.00 hrs (late enough for it to be sufficiently dark to see the stars but early enough to catch Orion). At the beginning of the month, Orion is to be found in a direction heading to the top of the village or towards Green Bell.
To locate the stars, try using your hand as a distance indicator. To do this extend your right arm and, with one eye closed, spread your hand to place your thumb near Betelgeuse (see February). A bright star should then be near to your little finger, which is called Aldebaran. It is the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus and is positioned to be the bull’s glinting red eye. An orange giant star, it is 25 times the diameter of the sun and 150 times as bright, while lying 65 light years away.
Look very slightly downwards and to the west of Aldebaran and, if it is a dark sky, you should see an open cluster of stars forming a V shape. These are the Hyades and form the bull’s head or face. With about a dozen stars being visible to the naked eye, there are hundreds, all moving through space together to a point in the sky near Betelgeuse. Such a moving cluster is of particular importance to astronomers because the cluster’s distance can be accurately derived from the movements of the stars. The Hyades are estimated to be 600 million years old and are the nearest star cluster to us.
Using your spread hand again, place your thumb on Aldebaran and you should find a group of stars under your little finger. This is The Pleiades (also know as the Seven Sisters or M45) and is probably the most famous open star cluster in the sky. On a reasonably dark night, you should see at least six of the stars in The Pleiades, with the naked eye, and under good conditions you might be able to see more than nine. Containing more than 500 stars in all, The Pleiades is about 410 light years away and covers an area four times the size of the full Moon. To enjoy the full beauty of this spectacular cluster of stars, it well worth looking through binoculars. Just look at Christopher’s stunning photos to discover what you are looking for. The Pleiades cluster is relatively young, with an estimated age of 50 million years but the brightest members, which stud the photos like priceless blue-white diamonds, are no more than a few million years old.
In fact, both of these open star clusters spring into life and offer a truly amazing depth, when viewed through a pair of binoculars. I find one of the best ways to enjoy a clear, dark sky is to wrap up warm (thermals, body warmers/jacket and thick socks, scarf, hat and gloves) and to lie or recline on a garden lounger or adjustable chair and just look at the sky. You can sometimes be especially lucky and see a ‘shooting star’ or meteor. I use a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars and you would be amazed at how many more stars you can see, rather than just looking directly with your eyes (especially if your eyesight is not quite as good as it used to be). An extra blanket and flask of coffee or tea would probably be desirable if you plan to be out for long but beware of too much alcohol or you could just fall asleep and miss the spectacle altogether!! Someone I know had a neighbour rushing round to his garden, when he opened the curtains in the morning and saw him slumped in the chair! He was certainly feeling cold by then.
So, let’s just re-cap on what you can now find in the south/west sky. Moving eastwards (left) from The Pleiades in Taurus, back to Orion. Following upwards and eastwards from Betelgeuse will take you to two bright stars of Gemini (the Twins), which are Castor and Pollux, then on through Cancer to Leo. The leading edge of Leo is known as the Sickle and looks like ‘?’ backwards.
Orion has now slipped away for the summer and will not be seen again until the autumn. However, there are lots of other brilliant constellations coming our way soon and I shall enjoy telling you about them later.
Meanwhile, we are going to find out more about the Moon this month. The Moon is so consistent in its rhythms and cycles and yet, sometimes, that does not appear to be the case. I received my first telescope as a present one July and struggled at first to understand how to use it (as many people do). Unable to see anything through it, I decided to look for the Moon and, believe it or not, it was October when I finally saw it!! While the sun is very high in our summer sky, the Moon remains quite low – while in the winter it is just the opposite. It is still well placed in May and is a truly fascinating object to study. Naked eye observations are one way to follow the Moon cycles, with binoculars or a small telescope enabling many more features to be seen.
The Moon takes a month (29.5 days) to orbit the Earth. As a result of the gravitational pull between the Earth and the Moon, it takes the same amount of time to rotate on its axis, so it always keeps the same side or face turned towards us. So, why do we see the different phases of the moon? It is all to do with the position of the Sun, the Moon and our Earth. At new Moon, the Moon is between the Sun and Earth, with the sun shining on the far side we do not see, while at full Moon the Earth lies between the Sun and Moon and so the sun shines fully on the face we do see. This makes it the second brightest object in our sky.
Christopher’s stunning photographs of the Moon show the phases as we move through any month. To follow its progress you can usually find the New and Full Moons recorded in most diaries. Finding the New Moon can be quite a challenge, as it is so close to the setting sun. Rarely seen on the first day, you will need to look eastward on the second day, back along the pathway of the sun, to see if you can find the new Crescent Moon – and what a joy to see if you can locate it. Sometimes there are planets alongside which makes the find even more precious! Appearing about 50 minutes later each evening, the visible part of the Moon grows or waxes, as it appears to move further eastwards in the sky, away from the position of the sun. It is at this time that you may be able to see the whole face lit by a very gentle light known as earthshine, giving a ghostly outline from the Crescent Moon. This is the sunlight reflected from Earth onto the part of the Moon usually in shadow.
Around day 7 you will see the Half moon or First Quarter and it is a great opportunity to look along the terminator (the imaginary boundary between light and shadow) with binoculars to see the huge array of craters, mares and mountains.
When more than half the lunar surface is visible by sunlight, the Moon enters its Gibbous phase, shining for many hours after sunset until well into the night. It is during this phase (day 10 – 11) that I first saw the ‘handle on the Moon’ pictured on the left. I initially thought something dramatic had happened, until further investigation revealed that it was the sun shining on the top edge of a crater wall known as Sinus Iridium, while the bay of flooded basalt below remains in the shadow..
With the arrival of the Full Moon around day14, the shadows will have disappeared and the Moon takes on a different appearance. The most prominent crater in the southern highlands is Tycho with a large number of rays or streaks radiating out over the Moon’s surface. (I think it looks rather like a chocolate orange). You will know when it is the true Full Moon as the Moon is visible in the east just before the Sun sets in the west. Take care of your eyes if looking through binoculars or a telescope as the full Moon can be very bright. Use a filter, if available, or improvise with a pair of sunglasses!
After its full phase, the Moon rises later each night so by the time of the Last Quarter, it is rising well after midnight. The waning Moon, as it is known, is not often observed as most of us are in bed!
Indeed, the Moon has more impact on our daily lives than we realise, with its gravitational pull causing two high tides on earth each day. As before, I would encourage anyone keen to learn more to obtain a Moon map and enjoy discovering all the features.
We are now six months into the year and I do hope you are enjoying finding out more about the night sky and our truly amazing universe. With the onset of summer and the promise of better weather (hopefully), the keen astronomer needs to be up much later, with the stars only starting to appear around 22.00hrs. In fact, it does not go truly dark at this time of year, as the sun does not sink far below the horizon.
I would like to refer more to the constellation positions in the sky and one of the simplest methods is to use a planisphere to assist you. A friend of mine found this Uncle Al’s Sky Wheel on the internet and the good news is that you can download it for free. The easiest way to find it is to Google ‘Uncle Al’s Sky Wheel’ and click on the ‘hands on universe’ link. You will need the Northern version for the current year. It works better if you can either print on a stiffer quality of paper or stick the printed paper onto card before cutting out. Once cut out and cellotaped to form a pocket, the month and date can be selected and you can see what’s in the sky at any given time of night. There are also lots of books, containing sky charts, to guide you and I particularly like ‘The Monthly Sky Guide’ which also includes a 5–year forecast of the planets.
So, onto one of the oldest and well-known constellations this month – the Plough, Big Dipper or the Great Bear – all names used for Ursa Major. (By the way, the dipper refers to a ladle type utensil and not the one found at the fairground!). The seven brightest stars comprise one of the most easily recognised patterns in the sky, sometimes referred to as a saucepan shape, as seen in Christopher’s excellent photo taken especially for us. Note the second star down the saucepan handle is an apparent double star and can be seen unaided with good eyesight. This is called Mizar, with Alcor alongside. Mizor is itself a double star but you will need at least a small telescope to be able to see it. However, the constellation extends out much further than these seven stars, making it the third largest in the sky. The brightest stars of the Plough form part of the Great Bear’s back and a long tail, which is a strange bear indeed, with the rest indicating the head and legs. To find it at 23.00hrs, look in a north-westerly direction but high in the sky.
The two stars furthest from the handle are known as ‘the pointers’ and lead us upwards to another bear – the Little Bear or Ursa Minor, also known as the Little Dipper. The shape is very similar to the Big Dipper but with the curve of the handle reversed. The pointers indeed point to the most famous star in the Ursa Minor constellation known as Polaris, the Pole Star. Lying less than a degree from the celestial North Pole, it would be directly overhead to an observer stood at the Earth’s North Pole. Polaris is the one star in the northern hemisphere that does not move, so would have been vital to the ancient mariners. Similar in brightness (magnitude) to the stars in the Big Dipper, Polaris is a yellow supergiant perhaps 100 times the Sun’s diameter.
With Polaris at the tip of the handle, the Little Dipper appears to rotate around it throughout the night and will always be found quite high in the northern sky. This is a good reason to get the lounger out and lie back and really enjoy looking at these constellations at your leisure. They are both great subjects to observe more closely through binoculars too.
If you are moving ahead with your astronomy, already studying maps and constellations, you may know that a beautiful spiral galaxy, known as M81, can be found in Ursa Major. This can be seen through binoculars on a clear night, appearing as a milky-white blur, and can be found in the area above and to the right of the ‘pointer stars’. However, with a larger telescope, such as Christopher uses, the blur transforms into the amazing galaxy you can see on the right of the photograph. It is thought that our own Milky Way galaxy is very similar to this one, in shape and form. To the left of the photo is another galaxy, known as M82, an unusual thin, cigar shape.
Did you notice how light the nights were in June and how little ‘dark’ sky there was? This is not productive for astronomers, so while we are waiting to see more stars in the evening sky, I thought I would share with you about other ‘events’ which could be taking place in our skies. This months’ article could really be called ‘lights in the sky’.
Watching the International Space Station (ISS) move across the sky is quite a treat. Over the years it has grown in size as more solar panels have been added and it is now the size of a football pitch! Taking approximately 90 minutes to orbit Earth (can you imagine how exciting that would be) it can clearly be seen as the last and first rays of sunlight illuminate the craft and make it very visible. This stunning photo from NASA shows a spot of maintenance taking place.
To obtain the exact timings for each visible pass over Ravenstonedale, log onto www.heavens-above.com and then choose the database (UK). In the ‘string’ type the village name and when found, click on the name. Look under ‘Satellites’, then click on ISS. If visible in this area over the next 10 days, a list will appear giving dates and times. Some of the passes are during the night but keep checking through the coming months to see if the timings are more civilized. A good pass to see is one that goes from a Westerly direction travelling East, with a fairly high altitude. Sometimes you can see the shuttle following on.
Christopher has been busy again, photographing lights in the sky. I was with him at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire last month, when he spotted the Sundog you see in the second photo. While regretting I did not have my camera, he quickly captured this shot on his phone (you can just see the edge of the Lovell telescope). So what is a Sundog or Sun Dog (also known as Parhelia)? They are formed by hexagon plate-shaped ice crystals high in the cirrus clouds that occur world-wide. In certain conditions, rays from the sun enter these crystals creating a halo around the sun of approximately 22 degrees. Look out for them whenever the sky is wisped or hazed with thin cirrus cloud. The halo is large and an approximate spread from the sun can be gained by using a fully stretched hand at arms length. Be very careful, never look directly at the sun, not even for a moment, or your eyes may be damaged. Also, do not look through a camera lens directly at the sun. (The photo here does not include the sun). Whereas the halo is not always visible, it is still possible to see the Sundogs, to the right and/or left of the sun, often when the sun is low in the sky. Each ‘dog’ is red coloured towards the sun and sometimes has greens and blues beyond. Look out for a similar occurrence with the Moon when the conditions are similar, you just might be lucky.
An event quite unique to this time of year and latitude has been captured by our faithful photographer who never seems to sleep! It is the occurrence of Noctilucent (night-shining) Clouds They are quite unlike any clouds seen during the day and are only visible against a twilit sky background - after sunset on the Earth, sunlight is still shining on these clouds. Generally they will be seen close to the sunward horizon, perhaps extending to around 15 – 20 degrees above the horizon, along the twilight arch. They are only visible during mid-May to mid-August, when the sun does not drop far below the horizon, and are usually seen after sunset and before dawn, between about 23:00 and 03:00. They are the highest clouds in the Earths’ atmosphere, located in the mesosphere at altitudes around 88km/50 miles and are usually colourless or pale blue (by comparison the cirrus cloud mentioned earlier are found 3 – 5 miles high). Noctilucent Clouds, composed of tiny ice crystals which reflect the sunlight, are not fully understood and are a recently discovered meteorological phenomenon. It is thought they may be linked to climate change and also space shuttle exhaust. Whatever the reason, this photograph is very special.
Next month we will find out about the Summer Triangle – watch this space!
We move from lights in the sky to darker evenings, with the opportunity to see some more stars. Do keep checking for the ISS passes as the fly-by times should improve.
One of the major benefits of learning astronomy was to improve my ability look up at a starry sky and be able to recognise constellations and find my way around. My long term love of Orion meant this was easier in the late autumn and winter months but I always felt a bit lost in the summer, unable to recognise anything other than the Plough. But help was at hand and now I know about the Summer Triangle it is all so easy. I say ‘easy’ because these are the first three stars to appear as the twilight turns to darkness. If you look up into the sky around 22:00 to 22:30 you will see them start to appear, first one then the other two soon come into view. They look so bright and all alone that I think you could easily mistake any one of them for a planet. I have opted for a diagram this month as it shows the constellations and the position of the three key stars so well – Vega, Altair and Deneb (brightest first).
Vega, in Lyra (the Lyre – an ancient type of harp) is the first to appear overhead and leads the Summer Triangle across the sky, from East to West. It is the fifth brightest star in the entire sky and is a blue-white in colour, lying about 25 light years away. For those with telescopes, M57 the famous Ring Nebula can be found in Lyra, although it can look more like a hazy spot or ring, whereas the camera is able to capture all the colour as shown here in Christopher’s’ amazing photograph. To find it, move down from Vega to the top of the diamond lyre shape, then follow the line to the right and you will find it in between the centre and the base star.
Next to Deneb, in Cygnus (the Swan) sometimes known as the Northern Cross. Deneb marks the swan’s tail and is the faintest of the three stars, lying over 3000 light years away, unlike Vega and Altair which are much closer to the Sun. It is in fact a very luminous star, a supergiant with a white-hot surface giving out over 250,000 times as much light as the Sun! Indeed, if Deneb were as close to us as our brightest star, Sirius, it would appear as brilliant as a half Moon, so the sky would never be dark when it was above the horizon. Moving to the other end of the Cygnus constellation, ideally with binoculars, follow the neck and arrive at the beak to find Albireo, a glorious pair of amber and blue-green stars. They are well worth a look through the telescope.
The third star to make up the triangle is Altair, found in Aquila (the Eagle). The view of our galaxy, the Milky Way can be seen to flow between Altair and Vega with Cygnus placed central to it. Although called the Summer Triangle, these three stars will remain visible through to October, so they are a vital link to your journey through the stars. We shall return to them again.
August is the month for seeing one of the brightest meteor showers, known as the perseids. They usually reach their peak around 12 august every year, with up to one a minute streaking away from the constellation of perseus, near the border with cassiopeia. Your chances should improve after midnight!
When looking at the night sky it is easy to know where the constellations will be each day, month and year, as they have remained virtually the same for hundreds of years but that is not the same for the planets. Information on their positions can be found in many up-to-date reference books, annual calenders or perhaps on the internet, skyandtelescope.com is a good choice.
Seeing planets can be very rewarding. Here is information about the massive gas giant jupiter, which is well worth searching for.
Viewed through the average telescope, or even binoculars, you should be able to see the largest of the Jovian satellites which are four Galilean moons (so named because they were discovered by Galileo). In fact, the planet does have at least 63 moons, with probably more to be discovered. On the photo you can see the moon to the left, which I understand to be Europa, and also the shadow of another moon passing when this was taken in June.
Jupiter, along with Saturn, is a gas giant, far more massive and far less dense than the smaller, mostly rocky planets of the inner Solar System. Its atmosphere is composed of a mixture of hydrogen and helium in super-compressed form with traces of the compounds methane and ammonia.
There is no solid surface as such but, as you can see from the photo, has a stripy appearance. These are cloud formations that have been stretched longitudinally by the planet’s rapid rotation period of just under 10 hours!! (Even more amazing, when we consider that Jupiter’s volume could easily contain all the other planets in our Solar System).
The stripes we see are created by bands of varying pressures known as belts and zones, which whip up atmospheric disturbances which develop into gigantic storms, like hurricanes, but on a massive scale.
To give you an example, The Great Red Spot, which is very distinctive but not shown here (due to it being on the other side), is a storm system the size of three Earths which was seen in the 17th century and still raging today.
It is truly impossible for us to imagine a world such as this.
I hope you were able to find the Summer Triangle, outlined last month, and it is from here that we venture out for the next couple of months.
This month we are looking west from the Summer Triangle (in the direction of Green Bell) although high in the sky. I have included a chart again to assist with finding the constellations featured. It is best to be out looking by 21:00 – 21:30, as these constellations will be moving away to the west by the end of the month. Remember, it is always advisable to allow some time for your eyes to become adapted to the dark conditions. If you walk out of a brightly lit house you will be amazed how many more stars you can see 10-15 minutes later, so if you are only able to look out for a short time, your eyes will adapt quicker if you reduce your room lighting.
First find Vega, in Lyra, and move your view to the right, looking for the most distinctive part of Hercules known as the ‘keystone’ formed by four stars. For a little practice before you go outside, find the four ‘keystone’ stars on Christopher’s photograph above (It is leaning to the right). Once you have found this in the night sky you will then be able to locate the remainder of Hercules, represented on old star maps as a huge Greek hero or god, kneeling on one knee and brandishing a club. It is alongside the ‘keystone’ that you will find one of the showpieces of the heavens, the great globular cluster M13, a grouping of 300,000 stars or more, compressed into a ball of light 100 light years across. Indeed, it is the brightest in our northern hemisphere and can be seen naked eye under very clear conditions, resembling a star which is slightly out of focus. Binoculars show it as a glowing ball, while greater magnification starts to reveal just how stunning this globular cluster is. The brightest stars in the cluster are giants, emitting the light of 1000 Suns. When you view this cluster, you are looking 23,000 years into the past! Just gaze at Christopher’s fantastic photograph to enjoy this wondrous sight.
Continue westward and look for a semicircle of stars known as Corona Borealis. Then onward, to locate the brightest star in that area of sky called Arcturus. At 37 light years away, it is one of the closest of the bright stars. At this point we are able to join our knowledge of the sky together, by looking at the handle of the Big Dipper (see June) and following it down, you will arrive at Arcturus. (Remember ‘arc to Arcturus’ to remind you). This yellow-orange coloured star is in the constellation of Bootes, which I think looks rather like a conventional kite.
Next month we will journey eastwards from the Summer Triangle and find out more about Pegasus and Andromeda. Meanwhile, I hope you are able to get outside to enjoy some clear skies. Here in Ravenstonedale we are so blessed to still have amazing dark skies for they are disappearing so fast all over Britain, as more and more bright lighting robs us of our darkness.
With the Summer Triangle still very dominant in the early evening sky, this month takes us eastwards to visit more constellations. If you are still having trouble finding these three bright stars, try going out about 30 minutes after the sun has set and there is still a twilight glow in the sky. Keep looking directly overhead and when the first appears (Vega) the others will not be far behind. I have included another sky map for reference this month showing Cygnus, for your starting point.
Lying South is the small constellation Delphinus (The Dolphin) which is a delight to find. A small group of stars, which look rather like a kite, have been thought of as a dolphin since ancient times. Look for it on a clear night as you move your eyes eastward to search for Pegasus (The Winged Horse). This constellation does not feature any very bright stars but its most distinctive feature is the Square, whose corners are marked clearly by four stars (although one of these actually lies in Andromeda) and these represent the horse’s body. When trying to locate Pegasus, I am always surprised how large the Square of Pegasus is, with a width of two outstretched fists, which is enough to contain a line of more than 30 moons side by side! Also important to mention, it is rarely square on and may look more like a diamond standing on one corner. Whereas it contains few stars, see just how many you can count within the square – the more you can count, the darker your sky.
Moving on from the top left hand star in the Square (the first star in Andromeda) the constellation rises to create a horn shape. (Although it does not resemble a horn on the map, it does when looking at the stars).To help locate it you can also look for the W shape of Cassiopeia, lying to the north of it. Again, with no outstanding or bright stars to look for, Andromeda is justly famous for the great and distant galaxy that resides within it. The Andromeda Galaxy is a great spiral galaxy, known as M31, and is so special to observe as it is considered to be a near-twin of our own Milky Way. It was in 1924 that the American astronomer, Edwin Hubble took a photograph that proved it was, in fact, a separate galaxy outside our Milky Way. We now know it is the closest galaxy to us but please stop to consider this – it is 2.5 million light years away – and that is just one galaxy in a known Universe full of countless galaxies, stretching as far as the largest telescopes can see! The concept is so colossal, it is indeed impossible to visualise.
About two years ago, I was given a photograph of the Andromeda Galaxy which took my breath away. Because I really wanted to share it with you, I contacted Richard Jackson (who takes most of his astro photos here in the North West) and he is happy for us to use it. I recommend you just gaze and wonder as you look at the estimated 400,000 million stars, twice the number in our Milky Way, with a diameter of around 150,000 light years. This stunning photograph also shows two smaller companion galaxies; M32 above and M110 lower down. On a clear night M31 can be seen as a fuzzy glow, with binoculars improving your chances of finding it. The larger the telescope, the more detail can be seen, of course. To locate it, you can either go northwards from the horn by counting from the corner (2 bright stars up, then 2 across), or it may be easier to come southwards from the second V of the W of Cassiopeia. Patience and a clear, dark sky are required but I assure you, it is so rewarding to find it and to gaze back.
If anyone is up and about after midnight on the 20th October (or a week either side) look for Orion, our old friend, rising in the East. If you have the time, do linger to watch for the Orionids, a meteor shower which should deliver at least a few to see. Good luck and I will explain more about them next month.
With the clocks moving back an hour and the darker evenings arriving all too soon, the only consolation is that the evenings now offer more opportunities for a bit of astronomy. Pegasus, we featured last month, is well placed high in the sky for seeing mid-evening. Look for the horn or arc of stars that form Andromeda and take time to familiarise yourself with these stars. You will then find that, in taking the time to study the shapes of the constellations in greater detail, you will be able to locate them easier each time and join others in learning the pleasure of becoming an amateur astronomer and being able to find your way around the sky with greater ease. You will then be the one to show and share with others and in this way create a better awareness of our truly amazing universe.
Check back to the October sky map for reference as we continue eastwards from Pegasus. Just under Andromeda is the tiny, but identifiable, constellation of Triangulum (the Triangle) and there are no prizes for guessing it has three main stars in it. You will need a clear, dark sky as it is quite faint. Using a pair of good binoculars, scan to the right of the star at the point of Triangulum to locate a spiral galaxy, M33. It is similar to the Andromeda galaxy (shown last month) but although somewhat further off, covers an area larger than the moon. Christopher’s photograph shows the thinly spread light which makes it quite a difficult but worthwhile object to find.
Move your gaze upwards to find Cassiopeia, another key constellation to locate with its distinctive W shape, high in the night sky and sitting within the Milky Way. It is roughly situated between Triangulum and the Pole star, Polaris. A wonderful naked eye subject, it reveals so much more through a pair of binoculars, while reclining on a chair or lounger gives you the time to just gaze and enjoy the constellation. Lying in a rich part of the Milky Way, Cassiopeia contains numerous star clusters and one that is visible through binoculars is M103 situated near the base of the left hand V. Most star clusters that we can see, either naked eye, through binoculars or even with a small aperture telescope, are just a fuzzy patch. Exciting to find but any detail is impossible to see, so when you look at Christopher’s photo it puts a new perspective on it, when you can see all the wondrous stars it contains.
I have not looked for M33 or M103 yet so I shall enjoy the challenge of finding them too. However, I have seen the next gem, the Double Cluster (known as NGC 869 &884, also C14) and was privileged to be alongside Richard Jackson when he took this photograph at Hardraw, near Hawes, earlier this year. Sitting within the Milky Way, as you can see from the amazing backdrop of stars, the Double Cluster is a real showpiece and is one of the finest examples of open clusters in the night sky, magnificent through binoculars or a small telescope but even visible naked eye on a clear, dark night. It lies in between Cassiopeia and another constellation immersed in the Milky Way, Perseus. Again, check on the October sky map to locate it. (Double Cluster marked as C14).
If the 17th November is clear, look out during the late evening to see if you are lucky enough to catch any meteors coming from the Leonids away to the east (Ash Fell direction). They radiate from the constellation of Leo, which does not rise until after midnight…. but you never know!
Meteor shower – the term conjures up the impression of meteors showering from the sky and all we have to do is stand and gaze as they zoom all over the night sky. Indeed, there was reportedly a great Leonid storm in 1833 where estimated rates ranged from 100,000 – 200,000 per hour! Gosh, we can only imagine what that was like. There have also been other plentiful showers reported since then but, in reality, this rarely happens as observers patiently stand and watch. I wonder if any of you saw any Leonids during mid-November? What a truly magical experience it is to see a meteor, or shooting star, zoom across the night sky. In December we are blessed with one of the brightest and richest meteor showers of the year (especially if there is no moonlight to spoil the overall viewing experience) with the peak viewing usually around the 13 –14 December. They are called the Geminids (which means they radiate from the constellation of Gemini ) to be found towards the east, Ash Fell direction, moving south towards Wild Boar Fell during the evening - look to the left of Orion as he rises. The best way to look for the Geminids is to dress warmly and sit or lie comfortably with a good view of the night sky, no binoculars or telescopes required. Although the forecast is often for around 100 per hour, forget the ‘shower’ concept and just treasure any meteors you do see.
As we come to the end of the year, and the tour of our visible Universe, I wonder what have you gained? My hope is that you can look up at the night sky and be able to identify a constellation that will enable you to find your way around the clear night sky.
So let’s just re-cap. Due to the rotation of the Earth, the stars appear to rise in the east and travel west, in the same direction as the sun. Indeed, although travelling unique orbits, the planets are also following a similar pathway However, the moon appears to move in the opposite direction, with the new moon rising alongside the setting sun, culminating in the full moon rising in the east, exactly opposite the setting sun. Indeed, on the evening of the full moon, you should be able to see both the sun setting and the moon is rising at the same time.
Whereas most constellations can only be seen during certain seasons, there are some, known as circumpolar, which can be seen all year. These are the constellations which rotate around the north pole star, Polaris. The Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) has Polaris as one of its stars and the Big Dipper or the Plough (Ursa Major) is easy to find and identify (see June entry for more detail) and can always be seen, as can Cassiopeia (see November). The constellations of Draco, Cepheus, and Camelopardis are all circumpolar, although have not been featured this year as they are not distinctive enough to find easily.
In February we were looking at Orion, so magnificent in the winter sky for the naked eye observer but a special source of surprise and joy for those able to observe through a telescope. So let’s go on a tour around the night sky, moving generally eastwards from Orion and first locate Gemini, and find the twins of Castor and Pollux. Continue passed Cancer, with the Beehive star cluster being the highlight, and on to locate the sickle of Leo. The next really bright star is probably Arcturus (you can check by looking at the Big Dipper handle as it ‘arcs to Arcturus) which is found in Bootes (shaped like a kite). Corona Borealis is indeed the shape of a coronet and quite distinctive to see. Then on, to find the Keystone of Hercules. (Map with the September entry for reference). With Vega shining so brightly in Lyra, we have arrived at the start of the Summer Triangle and brought us into the main belt of the Milky Way, our own beautiful galaxy. Deneb, the brightest star and tail of Cygnus, the Swan, spans the Milky Way, while the third star of the Triangle, Altair, in Aquila lies just outside the main band.
On from Cygnus to the autumnal, huge Square of Pegasus, which leads into Andromeda (below Cassiopeia) to Perseus. And here are the winter stars of Taurus, with the truly fabulous diamonds of the Pleiades sparkling and the Bull’s eye of Aldebaran shining orange. Just beyond is Orion again, ready to occupy the winter night sky with his presence and grandeur. He is certainly my favourite constellation and it is with no apologies that I include the truly awesome Orion nebula again, from Christopher, to inspire you to go out and look with eyes, binoculars or a telescope to see what you can find. (Photo Orion nebula).
The night sky will remain as it is way beyond our lifetimes and so these notes will stay current, however, the planets’ positions will always be changing. My thanks go to Christopher Hill and Richard Jackson for their amazing photographs, Malc for his maps and Stan Frost for his invitation to write.