Even though May brings long days and short nights, there is still plenty for us to see if we stay up late or even get up early. This month we have a procession of Bright Planets rising in the east before daybreak and the eta Aquariids meteor shower reaching its peak on the morning of May 5 with meteors being visible then and on the mornings either side of it. Meanwhile the constellation of Virgo, home to some of the brightest galaxies in our night sky, is high in the southern sky.
Virgo is home to a large cluster of galaxies known as the Virgo Cluster. The Cluster contains over 2,000 individual galaxies, 11 of which are Messier objects that will be visible to anyone using a reasonable astronomy telescope. They are all galaxies and the most notable of these is M104, the Sombrero Galaxy. This edge-on spiral galaxy has a dark dust lane running across its centre, giving it the appearance of a sombrero hat. M49 is an elliptical galaxy and is the brightest galaxy in the Virgo Cluster. M58 is a beautiful barred spiral galaxy and one of the brighter galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. M61 is a face-on spiral galaxy and is one of the largest galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. Other notable deep-sky objects in Virgo include the Eyes Galaxies and the Butterfly Galaxies. Both are made up of pairs of interacting galaxies that are colliding with each other.
Below Virgo is Corvus, the Crow. It is reasonably easy to find as it is a distinct, almost square set of stars right down on the horizon. Above Virgo, you will find Boötes (the Herdsman) and its brightest star, Arcturus. This star is easy to spot as it is the fourth brightest star in the night sky and has a noticeable golden tinge. It is part of the Spring Triangle asterism, which is formed by drawing lines from Arcturus to Spica, Spica to Regulus and Regulus back to Arcturus. Below and to the left of Virgo is Libra (the Scales), a very faint constellation with its main claim to fame being that it is the only constellation in the zodiac which doesn’t represent an animal.
This month’s full Moon is on 16 May, becoming 100% full at 5:14 am. This means that it will appear full on the nights of 14-15 May, 15-16 May, and 16-17 May. It will rise in the south-east at about 7:30 pm on 14 May, at about 9:00 pm on 15 May and at about 11:00 pm on 16 May when it will traverse the sky just above Antares. Many cultures refer to this month’s full Moon as the Flower Moon because of the abundant flower blooms that occur as spring gets going properly. Other names include the hare moon, the corn planting moon, and the milk moon.
There will also be a total lunar eclipse on 16 May, with it being visible from the Americas and parts of Africa and Europe. From the British Isles, the partial phase starts at 3:27 am and totality occurs at 4:29 am.
The last quarter Moon is on 22 May and will rise close to Saturn in the south-east morning sky. A few days later, on 25-27 May, you will see a crescent moon gliding below Jupiter, Mars and Venus, if you look very low down in the east as the mornings pass.
There is new Moon (no moon) on 30 May.
On the evening of 1 May, Mercury can be found low down on the western horizon, just to the left of the Pleiades, until it sets at around 10:00 pm. As the month progresses, it will gradually disappear into the twilight glow and will not be visible by the middle of the month. Also, if you look east at around 4:00 am on 1 May, you will see both Venus and Jupiter rising into the sky very close to each other.
From about the middle of the month, Saturn will rise in the south-east at around 3:00 am and, if you look further east about an hour later, you will see Mars rise at around 4:00 am, to be quickly followed by Jupiter and Venus, both of which will be down and to the left of the Red Planet. Neptune lies to the right of Jupiter, also rising at about the same time, but it will be very difficult to see as will shine very faintly.
The main meteor shower in May is the eta Aquariids, which is the result of small pieces of Halley’s Comet burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. This year it is forecast to peak between midnight and dawn on the morning of May 5 making this the best time to look for them. However, as there is no sharp peak for this shower, but rather a plateau of good rates that lasts a few days, then same time on May 4 and on May 6 will also be good for watching for them. On these mornings, a waxing crescent moon will have set in the half hours either side of midnight, meaning that the light from it will hardly intrude on the spotting of any meteors.
The meteors will appear to emanate from the constellation of Aquarius (The Water Carrier) at a radiant point near the star Eta Aquarii, although you don’t need to look there to see meteors as they’ll appear across the whole night sky. Start looking for them shortly after 3:00 am as that is when the radiant point is above the horizon and bear in mind that the higher the radiant point gets in the night sky, the greater the number of meteors you should see. Sunrise is at around 5:30 am, so this gives you an hour or so to spot them. At its peak, around 10-20 meteors per hour may be spotted.
As the days lengthen and the nights shorten there is still plenty to see in this month’s night sky. The winter constellations will gradually disappear beyond the western horizon as the spring constellations of Leo and Virgo dominate our southern sky. Also, after a gap of a few months, shooting stars return in the form of the Lyrids meteor shower, which peaks on the night of 21-22 April.
This month, the sun sets around 8:30 pm and the stars and the constellations start to become visible from about 10:00 pm onwards. So, once it is getting dark, look directly above your head and you’ll see the Plough, which is an asterism that is familiar to a lot of people. This makes it an excellent starting point from which to navigate your way around the southern night sky.
Up from and to the right of Regulus, you will find Castor and Pollux, the two stars which mark the heads of the Twins, Gemini. The bodies of the Twins are the two lines of stars which extend towards Orion (The Hunter), which will be low on the horizon out to the west and will be best found by identifying Betelgeuse, the bright red star which forms the Hunter’s left shoulder at the top of the constellation.
Below and to the left of Leo is the constellation of Virgo (The Virgin), with its brightest star Spica sitting down towards the horizon. In some cultures, Virgo is the "Wheat-Bearing Maiden" or the "Daughter of the Harvest” and is depicted holding several spears of wheat in each hand and Spica is one of the ears of grain hanging from her left hand. If you can’t find Spica, try going back up to the Plough and follow the curve of its handle down through the very bright star, Arcturus and then further on down to Spica, which will be low in the sky.
Below Virgo, you will see the small constellation of Corvus (The Crow), which ranks 70th in size among the 88 constellations in the night sky. The four brightest stars in this constellation form a square asterism known as the Sail, or the Spica’s Spanker, because two of the stars point the way to Spica. It is an ancient constellation that has been known since the time of the Babylonians. They saw it as a raven, and it was sacred to Adad, the god of rain and storm. To the ancient Greeks, it was a crow sent by Apollo to fetch water. The raven wasted his time eating figs. After returning late, Apollo punished him by throwing him into the heavens. He was also condemned to endure eternal thirst. This is why the crow caws instead of singing like other birds.
If you are at a location with little or no light pollution, you may be able to pick out Hydra (The Water Snake), which wriggles along the southern horizon and is the largest constellation in the night sky. Most of its stars are faint, but Alphard, its brightest star, is quite easy to find if you look below and to the right of Leo’s brightest star, Regulus (See above). Alphard is from the Arabic for "the solitary one" as there are no other bright stars near it. You might also be able to pick out the head of the Water Snake. It is an almost square set of four stars about halfway between Regulus and Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor, which sits below Castor and Pollux.
This month’s full Moon is on 16 April, becoming 100% full at 7:55 pm. This means that it will appear full on the nights of 15-16 April, 16-17 April, and 17-18 April. It will rise in the east at about 7:00 pm on the 15 April, at about 8:30 pm on the 16 April (traversing the sky next to Spica) and at about 10:00 pm on 17 April. It is often called the Pink Moon because of the pink flowers – phlox – that bloom in early spring in North America. In other cultures, it is called the sprouting grass moon, the egg moon, and the fish moon.
The last quarter Moon is on 23 April and on the following nights from 24 to 27 April it passes below the planets of Saturn, Mars, Venus and Jupiter over on the eastern horizon at dawn. You’ll need a very clear horizon to see the Moon and a pair of a binoculars or a telescope to make out the planets more clearly in the twilight glow.
There is another new Moon (no moon) on 30 April.
This month there are no bright planets in the night sky at all this month and they are pretty difficult to see in the morning as well., with the exception of Uranus which, at a magnitude of +5.8 will be very difficult to see. Saturn, Mars, Venus and Jupiter are all in a line, rising just before the Sun over in the east at around 5:00 am. Saturn and Mars are furthest from the rising Sun, so you might be able to spot them, but the others are closer to the Sun and will most likely be lost in the twilight glow.
However, later in the month, Mercury will be in the evening sky and on 29 April it will be at its furthest from the Sun, making it the best time look for this typically difficult to find planet. Look over in the west from about 45 minutes after sunset and you may be able to spot it low down on the horizon before it sets at around 10:30 pm.
After several months without any major meteor showers, we have the Lyrid meteor shower this month. It starts on 15 April and reaches its peak on the night of 21-22 April, when its dust particles that originate from the comet Thatcher hit our atmosphere are expected to produce around 15-20 meteors per hour. However, a good number of meteors can usually be seen on the night before and the night after the peak. This year, the peak happens close to a last-quarter Moon that doesn’t rise until about 3:30 am, making it great for spotting any shooting stars because the sky will remain dark pretty much all night.
The meteors will appear to emanate from the constellation of Lyra (The Lyre) at a radiant point near Vega, the constellation’s brightest star and the fifth brightest star in the night sky. You will find Vega over in the north-eastern night sky from 10:00 pm, although you don’t need to look there to see meteors as they’ll appear across the whole night sky. Start looking for them from about 10:00 pm as that is when the radiant point is above the horizon and bear in mind that the higher the radiant point gets in the night sky, the greater the number of meteors you should see.
January and the start of the year brings us a dazzling array of stars to find our way through, with Betelgeuse and Rigel blazing in Orion (the Hunter), glorious Sirius in Canis Major (the Great Dog) and the bright red Aldebaran in Taurus (the Bull). There is also Capella crowning Auriga (the Charioteer) and Castor and Pollux (the celestial Twins) in Gemini. There is also an opportunity to spot some shooting stars, with the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower on the night of 3-4 January and as there will be little or no moonlight to spoil the show, you may see up to 100 meteors per hour at its peak.
This month, the sun sets around 4:15 pm and the stars and the constellations start to become visible from about 6:15 pm onwards. As darkness falls, the most obvious constellation you’ll see is Orion (The Hunter), with its three bright stars in a line, surrounded by a quadrilateral of other stars. You see it rising in the east not long after dark and by 10:00 pm it will be up there in the centre of the southern sky. As it is the brightest constellation in the sky, you’ll be able to see it even when there is a bright moon or some light pollution.
If you follow the line of Orion’s belt heading left and slightly down, you will find Sirius. It is in Canis Major, the Greater Dog. It is the brightest star in the night sky and appears very low down at our northern latitude. This can cause it to twinkle quite strongly, especially on a clear frosty night.
Canis Major is just one of Orion’s dogs. The other, Canis Minor or the Lesser Dog, can be found directly to his left and its main star is Procyon, the 8th brightest star in the sky. Above Procyon are two stars, Castor and Pollux, which mark the heads of the Twins, Gemini. The bodies of the Twins are the two lines of stars which extend towards Orion.
Another thing you can see in the southern sky is the Winter Circle, a pattern of stars that is not a constellation. It’s made up of a lot of separate stars, in different constellations, so it’s what is called an asterism. It doesn’t form a perfect circle, but instead a hexagon that you can find if you start at Capella and move clockwise to Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, and Castor. In addition to the Winter Circle, Orion’s bright star Betelgeuse forms an equilateral triangle with the stars Sirius and Procyon. This what is called the Winter Triangle.
If you go back to Orion’s belt and look carefully about halfway down between it and the two stars that mark the Hunter’s left and right feet, you should be able to see a bright patch. This is the Orion Nebula, one of the brightest nebulae, or clouds of gas from which stars are born in the sky. One of many in our Milky Way galaxy, it lies roughly 1,300 light-years from Earth and is some 30 to 40 light-years in diameter. Look at it with binoculars or a telescope and you should see swirls of gas, though the darker and clearer the sky you have, the better. In it, you should also be able to pick out The Trapezium Cluster, which is made up of four bright stars that are only a million or so years old, babies on the scale of star lifetimes.
Looking North, the thing to bear in mind is that the constellations you see do not change from month to month, it is only their orientation that changes. Look for the seven stars of the Plough, up in the north-east, and the W-shape of Cassiopeia, high up in the north-west at this time of year. The Plough is known as the Big Dipper in North America. Use its two right-hand stars to point towards the Pole Star, Polaris, which is always in the same position in the sky. Once you’ve found it, you can use it to get your bearings on any night, though all the other northern constellations wheel around it anticlockwise.
Polaris is a second-magnitude star, about the same as the stars in the Plough or Cassiopeia, so don’t expect anything particularly bright. It’s just by chance that this millennium it happens to be very close to the pole of the sky, but there is a slow movement of the sky over the centuries that shifts the position of the stars, and 1000 years ago it wasn’t as close as it is now.
The first quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 9 January and will be over in the south-east as darkness falls, while this month’s full Moon is on 17 January, becoming 100% full at just after 11:48 pm. This means that it will appear full on the nights of 16-17 January, 17-18 January, and 18-19 January. It will rise in the north-east just after 3:30 pm on the 17 January, just after 2:30 pm on the 16 January and just after 4:30 pm on 18 January. On the night of 17-18 January, the full Moon will spend the night traversing the sky close the twins of Gemini, which you can find by spotting the constellation’s brightest stars, Castor and Pollux almost above it. Then on the nights of the 19-20 January and 21-22 January, you will find the Moon close to Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo.
The last quarter Moon is on 25 January and on 29 January, you will see it rising in the south-east at about 7:30 am, with Mars and Venus above and to the left of it.
This month’s full Moon is called the Wolf Moon, after the howling of hungry wolves lamenting the scarcity of food in midwinter. Other names include the Moon After Yule, Old Moon, Ice Moon, and Snow Moon.
If you watch the sky in the south-west during the first few days of the New Year, you will see Venus (the Evening Star), very low down just after sunset. It will eventually disappear from the night sky when it passes between the Earth and the Sun on 9 January but will reappear over in the south-east at daybreak from about 15 January to become the Morning Star.
Mercury lies to the left of Venus at the start of the month, remaining low in the evening sky for almost two weeks. It reaches its greatest separation from the Sun on 7 January, setting just before 6:00 pm. It will remain visible until 12 January before disappearing into the glow of the sun in the days after that.
Jupiter will be above and to the left of these two planets, with Saturn in between. This gas giant, which is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest our Solar System, will set at around 8:00 pm and if you look at it through binoculars or a telescope you should be able to see its four bright moons. Saturn is the other gas giant, the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest in our Solar System. It will set at about 6:00 pm at the start of the month before disappearing from view in the dusk twilight during the second half of the month.
Go up and left again and you will find Neptune a little bit above the constellation of Aquarius. It will be above the horizon until about 9:30 pm, but it will be very dim and therefore difficult to see, even with binoculars or a telescope. Its near twin in size, Uranus, will be a little bit brighter and can be found above the horizon until about 2:00 am, over to the east about halfway between the constellations of Pisces and Taurus.
Finally, following on from last month, Mars continues to make its reappearance and you will find it low in the morning twilight as it rises in the south-east at around 6:00 am. It starts the month near Antares and at the end of the month, the Red Planet will lie to below and to the right of Venus in the morning sky, albeit 250 times fainter and therefore more difficult to see.
The Quadrantid meteor shower, always the year’s first meteor shower, will peak on the night of 3-4 January and with this being very close to the new Moon of 2 January, there will be little or no moonlight to spoil the show. So, if we do get a clear night on 3-4 January and you do decide to look for meteors, start looking just before 9:00 pm on 3 January as this is when the shower is expected to reach peak activity.
At its peak, the shower is expected to produce around 120 meteors per hour. However, this is a theoretical maximum so, in practice, the number of meteors you are likely to see will be lower than this but given there will be little or no moonlight this year, you can realistically expect to see up to 100 meteors per hour at the peak.
However, the best time to look will be just before dawn on 4 January as this is when the meteor shower’s radiant point is at its highest point in the sky. You’ll find it in the north sky, directly below The Plough, but do bear in mind that you don’t have to look north as the meteors will appear across all the sky.
As it’s December, the month of the Winter Solstice, we have our Shortest Day with under 7 hours of daylight, so you don’t have to be out late to go stargazing. Although most of the bright stars are missing from our sky this month, it is a good time to spot the Andromeda Galaxy and also three bright planets, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter, which line up in the southern sky as darkness falls. We also have the best meteor shower of the year, the Geminids, which peaks on the night of 13-14 December it may be possible to see up to 120 meteors an hour in the few hours before sunrise on 14 December.
This month, the sun sets around 4:00 pm and the stars and the constellations start to become visible from about 6:00 pm onwards. As with November, there is a great signpost, in the form of the Square of Pegasus, to help you find your way around the sky. It is a huge square made up of four stars of nearly equal brightness: Scheat, Alpheratz, Markab and Algenib and, in the early evening, you should be able to see it high up in the south, above and to the left of Jupiter, which will be sitting in the south-west.
The top left star of the Square is Alpheratz. It is the brightest star in the constellation of Andromeda, which is marked by a line of three more stars running up and to the left of it. You can use this line to find the Andromeda Galaxy, one of the most famous features of the night sky and the nearest spiral galaxy to our own, the Milky Way. The best way to find it is to start Alpheratz and go a further two stars along the line, turn right and count another two faint stars along, and the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) will be close to the second faint star. If you are in a town, you’ll probably need a pair of binoculars to spot it, but if you’re in a dark place out in the country, you should be able to pick it out without using binoculars.
There will be more about Taurus and Orion next month, but for the moment, draw a line using the three stars in Orion's belt and follow it through Aldebaran and you’ll find the Pleiades star cluster (M45) a bit beyond it. This cluster is the brightest open constellation we can see in the night sky and is a grouping of stars, seven of which are visible to the naked eye, but the entire constellation has more than 1,400 stars. The name comes from the early Greeks who referred to the constellation as the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters, who were daughters of Atlas and Pleione. These stars are mentioned three times in the Bible and are linked to origin stories for many American Indian tribes.
If you look north, you’ll see the same stars as you would in any other month, but their orientation varies from month to month. In December the familiar Plough asterism, which many people recognise, is moving from the north to the north-east. If you follow its two right-hand stars upward, veer a little bit to the right and you’ll find Polaris, the Pole Star. If you look high up over to the north-east, you can see Castor and Pollux, the two brightest stars in the Constellation of Gemini (the Twins), which represent the heads of The Twins. Meanwhile, low down in the North-West, you will find Vega, the brightest star in the Constellation of Lyra (the Lyre). It is the fifth-brightest star in the night sky, and the second-brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere after Arcturus.
At the very start of the month, we are close to a new Moon (no Moon) as this occurs on 4 December and if it’s clear a couple of nights later, on 6 December, you will find the slightest of crescent Moons below and to the right of a bright shining Venus as it sets in the south-west at around 5:30 pm. On the following evening of 7 December, the crescent moon will to the left of Venus and will set about an hour later at around 6:30 pm. At sundown on 8 December the moon will be found directly south, hanging in-between Venus and Jupiter, while on 9 December, it will have moved to the left of Jupiter.
On 20 December, the moon will be 98.5% full and will rise a little further to the north at just after 4:30 pm to spend the night traversing the sky between the twins of Gemini, which you can find by spotting the constellation’s brightest stars, Castor and Pollux above and to the left of it. Three nights later, on 23 December, you will find the moon close to Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation of Leo.
The first quarter moon is on 27 December and on 28 December, you will see it lying very close Spica once it has risen at just after 1:30 am.
This month’s full Moon is called the Cold Moon because December is the first month of winter. Its Old English/Anglo-Saxon name is the Moon Before Yule, while another name is Wolf Moon, however, this is more commonly used for January’s Full Moon.
If you watch the sky in the south-west this month as darkness falls, you will see a diagonal line of three bright planets. Venus will be to the right, Saturn in the middle and Jupiter to the left. As first half of the month progresses, you will notice Venus moving closer to the other two, but just after half-way through the month it will change direction and move back the other way, heading right and downwards.
Venus will get brighter and brighter until 7 December, the day on which it reaches its brightest during its appearance in our 2021 evening sky. It will then begin to fade and if you look at it through a telescope, you will be able to see Venus shrink dramatically to a narrow crescent as the month passes. At the start of the month, it sets at 6:30 pm and by the end of the month it drops below the horizon at 5:20 pm. If you do look for it towards the end of the month, you may be able to see Mercury sitting beneath it and moving from its right to its left as each night passes.
Above and to the left of Venus, you will find Saturn, a gas giant that is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second largest in our Solar System. Then, if you look further left and up a little, you will see Jupiter, another gas giant that is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest our Solar System. Saturn sets in the south-west at around 7:30 pm and Jupiter sets at about 9:30 pm. If you use binoculars or a telescope you will be able to see Jupiter’s four bright moons and Saturn’s rings.
Go up and left again and you will find Neptune a little bit above the constellation of Aquarius. It will be above the horizon until about 11:30 pm, but it will be very dim and therefore difficult to see, even with binoculars or a telescope. Its near twin in size, Uranus, will be a little bit brighter and can be found above the horizon until about 4:30 am, over to the east about halfway between the constellations of Aries and Taurus.
Finally, Mars begins to make an appearance this month and you will find it low in the morning twilight as it rises in the south-east at around 7:00 am.
December is the month for viewing the shooting stars of the Geminids Meteor Shower, which unusually are not debris from a comet, but rather debris from an asteroid called Phaethon. The Geminids have become more plentiful in recent years and are considered by many to be the best meteor shower of the year. They are active from 4-17 December and during their peak, which this year is on the night of 13-14 December, it can be possible to see around 120 meteors per hour.
Their radiant point is in the Constellation of Gemini (The Twins) and this year it is close to one of its two bright stars, Castor, over in the north-east sky. Although this is where they originate from, you’ll be able to see them at any point across the sky while they burn up in the upper atmosphere, some 60 miles (100 km) above Earth’s surface.
They become visible when the radiant point is high up in the sky and it will get there by about 10:00 pm, so begin looking for them from then. However, the best time is normally at about 2:00 am, when the radiant point is at its highest in the sky, but this year, a waxing gibbous moon will be in the sky until about 3:30 am and will drown out the fainter meteors. It will therefore be best to wait until after the moon has set and look for them in the 2-3 hours of complete darkness between then and before sunrise on the morning of 14 December.
This year, the Winter Solstice will occur on 21 December at 3:59 pm am and is the exact moment when the northern hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the Sun. However, many people refer to the Winter Solstice as the Shortest Day of the year, when the number of hours of daylight are at their minimum and the number of hours of night are at their maximum. On 21 December this year, our sunrise will be 8:55 am and our sunset will be 3:47 pm, giving us 6 hours and 52 minutes of daylight.
The clocks have changed and the sun now sets at around 4:00 pm to give us long dark nights for stargazing. The Summer Triangle, which we have been using for navigation is disappearing from view, but the Great Square of Pegasus is now in the southern sky for us instead to find the constellations that lie around it, many of which have names with watery connections. Many of the planets are visible to the naked eye, with Venus shining particularly bright because it reached its furthest point from the Sun on 29 October. Finally, you may be able to spot shooting stars produced as a steady stream from the Taurid meteor showers in the first part of the month, while there is also the possibility of spotting some from the Leonids meteor shower which peaks on the morning of November 17.
Following the clock change at end of October, the sun now sets at around 4:00 pm, meaning that the stars and constellations start to become visible from about 17:30 pm onwards. During the previous three months we have been watching the Milky Way get lower and lower in the southern night sky and you may have noticed the constellations in the south getting dimmer. This is because the position of the Earth is now such that we are looking out of the plane of our galaxy and into the rest of the universe. However, the Milky Way has not gone altogether, and you can see it over in the west along with the Summer Triangle of the three bright stars of Vega, Altair and Deneb, which we have been using to navigate our way around the night sky in previous months.
The constellation of Pegasus represents the Flying Horse of Greek mythology and the Square marks the horse’s body. You may find it difficult to make out the horse because it is upside down and the constellation represents only the top half of its body and its head. However, you may be able to pick out Enif, the constellation’s brightest star which is below and to the right of the Square and Altair. Enif is an orange supergiant star that is 5,000 times brighter than the Sun and it represents the horse’s nose.
If you follow the diagonal down from the top left of the Square to beyond its bottom right star, you’ll come to a faint group of stars known as the Water Jar of Aquarius. It is an asterism formed by four relatively bright stars in the constellation of Aquarius (the Water-Carrier). It is easily recognised by its arrow shape, which looks a bit like a fighter plane with swept wings. Though it’s not the brightest part of Aquarius, it’s a good pattern that helps you to find its other stars.
From the top left edge of the Square stretches a line of stars in the constellation of Andromeda, which is named after Andromeda, daughter of Cassiopeia, in the Greek myth, who was chained to a rock to be eaten by the sea monster Cetus. It is the home of the Andromeda Galaxy which, at approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth, is the nearest spiral galaxy to our own galaxy, the Milky Way. It is also the most distant object that you are likely to see without an optical aid but if you can’t find it with the naked eye, then use binoculars through and look for a little oval blur.
Below Andromeda and to the left of Pegasus is where you will find the constellation of Pisces (the Fishes). It is very faint and difficult to see, so the best way to find it is to look directly below the Square of Pegasus for the Circlet of Pisces, which is a pentagonal asterism of 5 stars that marks the head of the Western Fish. Once you’ve found the it, go on from there to catch the Eastern Fish that’s jumping upward to the east of the Square of Pegasus. The entire constellation looks like the letter V.
Below Pisces is the constellation of Cetus, the Sea Monster which in Greek mythology both Perseus and Heracles needed to slay. You’ll find its tail marked by a fairly bright star called Diphda located low down in the sky, almost directly below the left-hand edge of the Square of Pegasus, while further over to the left and up a little, you’ll find Menkar, a reasonably bright star that marks its head.
You may have noticed that all the constellations in this part of the sky have watery connections. It is said that this is because the Sun travelled through these constellations during the wet season in ancient Mesopotamia, which was from November to March, and flooding was a major problem. Many of our constellations date from that location and time.
Finally, to the east of the Square is Aries, the Ram, whose three main stars form an easily recognised triangle, and another more regular triangle, actually called Tringulum, the Triangle, which contains the nearby galaxy M33. This will be visible with binoculars if you have a reasonably dark sky.
If you look north, you’ll see the same stars as you would in any other month, except that their orientation varies. This month the familiar Plough asterism, which many people will recognise, is low down in the north at the moment with its rectangular end almost directly below Polaris, the Pole Star. If you look over to the north-east you can see Capella. It is a yellow giant star, the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer), the sixth-brightest star in the night sky, and the third-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere after Arcturus and Vega.
At the very start of the month, we are close to a new Moon (no Moon) as this occurs on 4 November and if it’s clear a couple of nights later, on 6 November, you will find the slightest of crescent Moons setting in the south west at around 4:30 pm. However, it may be difficult to see the Moon on that evening as it will be lying close to where the sun has set. You'll probably find it easier to see it on the following evenings of 7 November and 8 November as it will have moved slightly to the left and will be sitting further from the sun. It will also be next to a bright shining Venus on these two evenings.
The first quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 11 November, and it will be sitting beneath Jupiter, low down on the southern horizon.
There is a partial eclipse of the Moon on 19 November, but it takes place just before sunrise, when the Moon will be low down in the north-west. This means that will need to be quite far west and north in the UK to see anything of it. If you are, then you may see the dark part of the Earth’s shadow starting to move onto the Moon at 7:18 am.
This month’s full Moon is called the Beaver Moon and there is disagreement over the origin this name. Some say it comes from Native Americans setting beaver traps during this month, while others say the name comes from the heavy activity of beavers building their winter dams. It is also known as the Frosty Moon, and along with the December Full Moon some called it the Oak Moon. Traditionally, if the Beaver Moon is the last Full Moon before the winter solstice, it is also called the Mourning Moon.
When it is getting dark, you may be able to spot Venus hanging low down on the western horizon just before it sets at around 5:30pm. It is shining brightly because it reached Elongation, its furthest point from the Sun, on 29 October and will take a few weeks to move away and become less bright as it does so.
Well to the left of Venus, in the south, you will find Jupiter, a gas giant that is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest our Solar System. It is the second brightest planet in our night sky at the moment and to the right of it is a fainter Saturn. Saturn, another gas giant, is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in our Solar System. Saturn sets in the south west at around 9:30 pm and Jupiter at about 11:00 pm. If you use binoculars or a telescope you will be able to see Jupiter’s four bright moons and Saturn’s rings.
Neptune will be above the horizon until about 1:30 am and you will find it to the left of Jupiter in Aquarius. However, it will be very dim and therefore difficult to see, even with binoculars or a telescope. Its near twin in size, Uranus, can be found above the horizon all night long, over to the east in Aries. It reaches opposition on 5 November, when it will be at its closest to Earth this year at 1,742 million miles away. Even so, it is only just visible to the naked eye and will be difficult to distinguish from the stars. It will be better to look for it with binoculars night after night and spot it moving against the background of stars.
Last month was the best month of the year to see Mercury because it reached its maximum separation (elongation) from the Sun on 25 October, so in the first part of this month you will still be able to see it in the south-east sky just before sunrise.
Mars is too close to the Sun to be visible this month.
During the first part of the month there South or North Taurid meteor showers, which unlike other meteor showers, don’t have strong peaks but instead have “staying power” and produce a steady stream of meteors over a number of weeks. The South Taurids are active from about September 10 to November 20, while the North Taurids are active from about October 20 to December 10. They both produce a steady stream of about 5 meteors/hour and because they overlap up until the 20 November, you can expect to see up to 10 meteors/hour during the first 3 weeks of the month. However, the best time to look for them will be at the start of the month, a few days either side of the new Moon on 4 November when there will be little or no moonlight to drown them out.
We also have the Leonid meteor shower this month and it is known for periodic storms of historic proportions, when shooting stars fall like rain. While no storm is predicted for the 2021 Leonids, you can still catch plenty of meteors between 6 November and 30 November. The meteor shower peaks the morning of November 17 but unfortunately, this is two days before a full moon, meaning that the Moon will hang around for most the night, brightening the sky and washing out many of the meteors. However, as the Leonid meteors can appear in huge numbers, do keep an eye out for them from about 10:30 pm, which is when the radiant point rises above the horizon. You never know, you might spot some.
We had the Autumnal Equinox at the end of last month and with it comes ever shorter days and longer nights, making it ideal for stargazing. Although there are not too many bright stars in the lower half of the sky, there is much to see higher up, with the Great Square of Pegasus entering our southern night sky. There’s also a chance of seeing some shooting stars, with the peak of the Draconids Meteor Shower on the night of 8/9 October and the peak of the Orionids meteor shower on the night of 21/22 October.
This month, the sun sets around 6:30 pm and the stars and the constellations start to become visible from about 8:00 pm onwards. Even though we are now into Autumn, the Summer Triangle, which is made up of the three bright stars of Vega, Altair and Deneb, is still visible and can be used to navigate your way around the night sky. Start off by finding Vega, a really bright white star which will be high up in the sky to the South-West. Just face south, look up, then look right and you will find it. Next is Altair, which you will find below Vega, halfway down towards the horizon and slightly to the left. Finally, there is Deneb, which will be almost directly above Altair and above and to the left of Vega.
The Milky Way, which has dominated the night sky over the last couple of months can still be seen during the early part of the night. Just trace a line down from Deneb, through Altair and you should be able to make out its band of stars as it flows down to the horizon, with the last of its cloudy core visible and to the right of Saturn and Jupiter as they sit just above the horizon.
At the moment there are not many bright stars in the lower part of the southern sky, so if you are in an area with light-pollution, look higher up and you should be able to pick out some constellations. Below Vega, you will see the 4 other main stars that make up the constellation of Lyra (the Lyre). These form a small parallelogram and make up the body of the Lyre – the sky’s only musical instrument.
Finally, looking at Altair, you will find the constellation of Aquila (the Eagle) because Altair is its brightest star. Altair also has outstretched wings, though they are not as obvious at the wings of Cygnus. In between these two flying birds is the constellation of Sagitta (the Arrow), a dim but distinctive shape which is reasonably easy to pick out. Another small but easily seen constellation called Delphinus (the Dolphin) is nearby and it also looks like what it’s meant to be.
If you look high up and slightly to the South-East, you’ll find the Square of Pegasus a large asterism made up of 4 stars of nearly equal brightness in a large square pattern. These are Scheat, Alpheratz, Markab and Algenib. The constellation of Pegasus represents the Flying Horse of Greek mythology and the Square marks the horse’s body. You may find it difficult to make out the horse because it is upside down and the constellation represents only the top half of its body and its head. However, you may be able to pick out Enif, the constellation’s brightest star which will be about halfway between the bottom right of the Square and Altair. Enif is an orange supergiant star that is 5,000 times brighter than the Sun and it represents the horse’s nose.
If you look north, you’ll see the same stars as you would in any other month, but their orientation varies from month to month. In October the familiar Plough asterism, which many people will recognise, is moving from the north-west to the north. Follow its two right-hand stars upward, veer a little bit to the right and you’ll find Polaris, the Pole Star. If you look over to the north-east you can see Capella. It is a yellow giant star, the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer), the sixth-brightest star in the night sky, and the third-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere after Arcturus and Vega.
At the very start of the month, we just miss the last quarter Moon as it was on 29 September, while there is a new Moon (no Moon) on 6 October. So, if it’s clear on the evening of 9 October, you will find the slightest of crescent Moons setting in the west at around 7:00 pm with a bright Venus below and to the left it.
This month’s full Moon is called the Hunter’s Moon because traditionally, people in the Northern Hemisphere spent the month of October preparing for the coming winter by hunting, slaughtering and preserving meats for use as food. Like the last month’s Harvest Moon, the Hunter's Moon is also particularly bright and long in the sky, giving hunters the opportunity to stalk prey at night.
This month’s full Moon is on the night of 20-21 October, becoming 100% full just before 4 pm on the afternoon of 21 October and then rising in the east a few hours later at just before 7:00 pm. It will be below and to the right of the Pleiades (The Seven Sisters) on 22 October and almost directly above Aldebaran, the red eye of Taurus the Bull, on 23 October. The last quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 28 October, rising in the north east, next to Praesepe (the Beehive Cluster) shortly after 11:00 pm.
When it is getting dark, you may be able to spot Venus hanging low down on the western horizon just before it sets at around 7:30 pm, or 6:30pm after the clocks change. It is gradually getting brighter because it is moving closer to Earth. On 29 October it reaches Elongation and is at its furthest from the Sun.
Saturn and Jupiter, two of our Solar System’s gas giants, are still visible above the southern horizon and Jupiter, the bigger and brighter of the two, will probably be the first thing you see when it’s getting dark. Saturn will appear to its right about half an hour after you first see Jupiter. They will travel just above the southern horizon until they set, with Saturn doing this first at around midnight and Jupiter following at around 2:00 am.
Neptune will be above the horizon until about 4:30 am and you will find it to the left of Jupiter in Aquarius. However, it will be very dim and therefore difficult to see, even with binoculars or a telescope. Its near twin in size, Uranus, can be found further over to the east in Aries, rising at about 6:30pm and staying above the horizon all night. It will be just visible to the naked eye, although you’ll have a better chance of seeing it if you use binoculars or a telescope.
This is the best month of the year to see Mercury because it reaches its Elongation, or maximum separation from the Sun, on 25 October. If you look east at around 6:30 am that day, you may be able to see it, but because it keeps close the horizon, the best chance of success will be found if you are at an elevated position overlooking an open horizon with no trees and buildings to prevent you from seeing it.
Mars is too close to the Sun to be visible this month.
The Orionid meteors fly each year between about October 2 to November 7 and are caused by debris from Halley’s Comet smashing into the Earth’s atmosphere. You can spot them from the start of the month, but you can see the greatest number at meteor shower’s peak on the night of 21/22 October.
In a good year, you can expect to see about 10- 20 meteors/hour at the peak, but this year a near full moon will block out all but the brightest ones. However, if you do decide to look for them, wait until after 10:00 pm because that’s when their radiant point (the area of the sky where the meteors seem to originate) is to the top left of Orion as it rises in the east.
When watching for the meteors, give yourself at least an hour of observing time, because they will come in spurts, interspersed with lulls. Also remember that your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness of night, so don’t rush the process. If you are patient, you may see some of the brightest Orionid meteors despite the Moon’s glare.
Alternatively, you could watch for the Draconid meteors at nightfall and early evening on October 8 as there will be little or no moon to drown them out. You might catch some on the two nights either side of that as well. You’ll find the radiant point for the Draconid meteor shower a little bit to the right of Vega and right next to the head of the constellation Draco the Dragon.
The Draconid shower is a real oddity, in that the radiant point stands highest in the sky as darkness falls. That means that unlike many meteor showers, more Draconids are likely to fly in the evening hours than in the morning hours after midnight. Also, this shower is known as “a Sleeper” because in most years it produces only a handful of meteors per hour. However, do look out for them because the Draconids’ unpredictable nature, as seen in both 1933 and 1946, means that you could enjoy thousands of meteors in only one hour.
It’s now August and a few weeks since the Summer Solstice, so you should be noticing it getting dark earlier at night. Because the Summer Triangle is still in the sky, you can continue to use it to find your way around the constellations. There’s lots to see with the cloudy core of the Milky Way being visible for about three hours after sunset and meteor showers returning with the peak of the Perseids on 12-13 August. The planets are also making a good show with Jupiter and Saturn being at their closest approach to Earth this year and this month.
With sunset now at around 9:00 pm, the stars and the constellations will become visible from about 10:00 pm onwards. As with July, the best way to navigate your way around the night sky is to still use the Summer Triangle. The Triangle is made up of the three bright stars of Vega, Altair and Deneb. Start off by finding Vega, a really bright white star which will be directly overhead. Next is Altair, which you will find halfway between Vega and the southern horizon. Finally, there is Deneb, which will be almost directly above Altair and across from Vega.
Once you have found the Summer Triangle, you can now start to look for some constellations. There’s Cygnus the Swan, which is also known as the Northern Cross. It is a large cross-shape with Deneb at the top, marking the tail of a swan which flies down the Milky Way with outstretched wings towards Sagittarius (the Archer) which is low down on the southern horizon. It’s not a particularly bright constellation, so you’ll need a good clear night and to be far away from any light pollution to see it. As you trace a line between these two constellations, you should be able to make out the Milky Way’s cloudy core, which will be visible up until about three hours after sunset.
Although most of what to see is in the southern night sky, there are a few notable things to see if you look north. In the north-west, you will find the familiar shape of The Plough and you can use its two right hand stars to point towards Polaris (the Pole Star or North Star), which is always in the same position in the sky.
To the right of Polaris, you’ll see the W-shape of Cassiopeia, the constellation that represents the fabled vain queen of the same name. At this time of year her husband, king Cepheus, is high in the sky, though his stars are nothing like as bright as those of his beautiful wife. Below Cassiopeia are the stars of Perseus, after which the Perseid meteors are named. These meteors will peak on the night of 12-13 August, and you can find out more about them below. Finally, low down and below Perseus is Capella, the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer) and the sixth-brightest star in the night sky.
However, it will be difficult to see the moon on 9 August as it will be lying close to where the sun has set, so you'll probably find it easier to see it on the following evening, 10 August, as it will have moved slightly to the left and will be sitting further from the sun and closer to Venus. Try again on 11 August and you may see the moon lying to the left of Venus.
The first quarter Moon (a half moon) is on 15 August while the full moon is on the night of 21-22 August, when it will rise in the south-east at around 9:30pm, with Saturn above and to the right of it and Jupiter above and to the left of it. August’s full moon was called the Sturgeon Moon by North American fishing tribes because this species of fish appeared in large numbers during this month. It's also been called the green corn moon, the grain moon, and the red moon for the reddish hue it often takes on in the summer haze.
When it is getting dark, the first thing you spot will be Venus. It will be low down on the western horizon in the dusk twilight, just before it sets at around 9:30 pm. Mars will be close to it, but this planet will be difficult to see because it is almost 200 times fainter than the “Evening Star”.
If looking for planets, you will have more success when looking to the south-east at dusk because two of our Solar System’s gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn will rise from there at about 9:00 pm and will be at their closest approach to Earth this year and this month. First there is Saturn, reaching ‘just’ 831 million miles away on 2 August, while Jupiter passes its closest to us on 20 August, at 373 million miles away.
Jupiter is the brighter of the two planets. It will be sitting to the left of Saturn and if you look at it through binoculars, you’ll see its four largest moons. They are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and are known as the Galilean moons. With a telescope, you’ll also be able to see the dark belts of Jupiter crossing its disc, and maybe, if you are lucky, the storm known as the Great Red Spot.
If your binoculars or telescope magnify by about 40 or 50 times, you be able to see Saturn’s famous rings and its biggest moons when you look at it. The largest, Titan, is enormous. In fact, it’s 40% more massive than the planet Mercury and 80% more massive than our own moon.
After a few months’ absence, you’ll be able to see some shooting starts because the number of meteor showers is now on the increase. In fact, this August will be a great month for watching shooting stars because the annual Perseid Meteor Shower will peak on a night when the Moon is only a crescent and sets soon after the Sun. This is the night of 12-13 August and with no moon to drown out the shooting stars, you are likely to see them from the hour or so after sunset.
They are called Perseids because the radiant (the area of the sky where the meteors seem to originate) is located near the constellation of Perseus and although you’ll be able to see them throughout the night, you will see more if you wait until this radiant is high in the night sky. This will be from about midnight and if you watch until dawn, the shooting stars will be raining down from overhead.
When watching for shooting stars, give yourself at least an hour of observing time, because they will come in spurts, interspersed with lulls. Also remember that your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness of night, so don’t rush the process. If you are patient, you may see up to 60 meteors per hour at the shower’s peak.
Hi, I’m Steven Marshall, a Scottish landscape photographer based at Rockpool House in the heart of the beautiful West Highland Peninsulas of Sunart, Morvern, Moidart, Ardgour and Ardnamurchan. Get in touch for photography tuition, tours and print sales.