As the Earth rotates on its axis Venus will appear to 'move' westwards until it disappears over the horizon.
Venus is extremely bright because of where it is in its orbit around the Sun compared to where Earth is. On the 24th March it was at greatest eastern elongation and the best time to see it in the evening. Look at our glossary for an explanation of greatest eastern elongation.
It will be very bright throughout April. At the beginning of May you will still see it about 4 hours before sunset but by the end of May it will only be visible 30 minutes after sunset before it disappears. This is because it is moving along in its orbit and coming to a point called inferior conjunction. See elongation in the glossary for a diagram showing you the position of Venus (or Mercury) at inferior conjunction.
How bright an object appears in the night sky is called its magnitude (again have a look at the glossary for an explanation). We can see things with the unaided eye that are as dim as magnitude 6. Venus at the moment is magnitude -4.4 which is over 9,500 times brighter than the dimmest thing we can see without using binoculars or a telescope (magnitude 6).
Here are some facts about Venus:
It was named after the goddess of love and beauty.
It is a terrestrial planet (rocky), the second planet from the Sun.
It is the closest planet to Earth when it is at inferior conjunction (see elongation for a diagram). When in this position it is 41 million km from Earth. However, we cannot see it when it is closest to Earth because like the Moon only one half of the planet is lit up by the Sun at any one time. At inferior conjunction the half that is illuminated (the daytime side) is facing away from Earth and so we only see the side that is not lit up (the nighttime side).
It is sometimes called Earth’s ‘sister planet’ because of their similar size, mass, proximity to the Sun, and bulk composition. However, it is very different.
Even though it is not the closest planet to the Sun it is by far the hottest planet in the Solar System, with a surface temperature of about 460°C all the time!
It has the densest atmosphere of the four terrestrial planets, consisting of more than 96% carbon dioxide. This is the reason why it is so hot. It has a runaway greenhouse effect.
It is shrouded by an opaque layer of highly reflective clouds which makes it very bright to look at.
It rains sulphuric acid in the upper atmosphere.
The atmospheric pressure at the planet's surface is 92 times that of Earth, or roughly the pressure found 900 m underwater on Earth.
It spins backwards i.e. clockwise rather than anticlockwise like Earth. The theory is that it was hit very hard in its early history by a large rocky body which tilted it over by 177 degrees. This means that it is upside down compared to Earth and therefore we see it as spinning in the opposite direction.
Like Mercury it does not have any moons. All the other planets have moons.
It orbits the Sun every 224.7 Earth days (its year). It spins on its axis every 243 Earth days (its sidereal day) making a day on Venus last longer than its year. Check the glossary for the meaning of sidereal. It gets a bit more complicated when you bring in the backwards rotation of Venus. When you do this a solar day on Venus is a lot shorter at 116.75 Earth days.
Where can you find a large family group in self-isolation in the sky? The answer is the Pleiades, otherwise known as the Seven Sisters. This little group of stars really is a group of siblings. It’s what astronomers call an open cluster. This is a cluster of stars that were formed at a similar time (by astronomers’ standards - we aren’t talking minutes here, or even years), from the same cloud of dust and gas. This means they all have a similar chemistry and a similar age - a mere 100 million years or so – not that old as stars go.
Like many families, sibling stars in open clusters tend to drift off to different places with time but the Pleiades won’t be noticeably changing in our lifetime. The current estimate is that it could take around 250 million years for this to happen. Looking at this group in binoculars or a small telescope, shows lots of stars in the group but with the unaided eye it’s not possible to see as many. The story goes that the ancient Greek army used to use them as an eye test. You had good enough eyesight if you could see at least 7 of the stars.
In some photographs of the Pleiades or in large amateur telescopes, you can see dust clouds (nebulosity) around them but don’t be tempted to think this is the cloud they were formed from. The cluster just happens to be passing through at the moment. The stars light up the dust to make a reflection nebula, which can be seen as the blue wispy bits in the photograph.
The Sun would have been formed in an open cluster like this and had sibling stars but they have long since drifted apart. Astronomers got very excited a while ago when they found a star so similar to the sun that they believed it could be one of the Sun’s siblings.
Finding the Pleiades
The tiny, sparkly cluster of the Pleiades is easy to find in the early evening during the first half of April 2020. Right now it is just above the bright planet Venus. Venus will get closer and closer, until it actually looks as though it is in the cluster on 3rd April 2020 and will then move off upwards and to the left. The Pleiades will be a little lower in the sky each night as darkness falls until, by the very end of the month, they will be below the horizon and not possible to see.
To find the Pleiades in the night sky, first find something you know, maybe the Plough (Big Dipper) or Orion’s Belt.
From Orion’s Belt
From Orion’s belt, imagine a line stretching off to the right and it will point almost directly towards the Pleiades.
From the Plough
Instead of using the pointer stars that point towards the North Star, use the top two stars of the Plough’s box. You will need to follow an imaginary line from here to the right, right across the sky, through the bright star Capella and on to the Pleiades.
Clips taken from Stellarium.org
Pleiades from Orion
Pleiades from the Plough
The Hyades cluster of stars forms a relatively distinct V shape in the constellation Taurus. Astronomers call this type of cluster an open cluster. It is the nearest open cluster to the Sun at 153 light years away. Have a look at the astronomy glossary for an explanation of what a light year is. Even though you can’t see them with the unaided eye there are hundreds of stars in the cluster. They are all the same age, they were born in the same place, they share the same chemistry and they move through space together. However, there is one exception! The brightest star which is an orange/red colour isn’t actually in the cluster at all. It only looks like it is part of the cluster from where we are on Earth. This star is called Aldebaran and just happens to lie along the same line of sight as the stars in the Hyades cluster even though it is only half the distance to the cluster.
The V shape is the head of the bull, Taurus. The star Aldebaran represents the fiery red eye of the bull. Above the shoulder of the bull, hovering like a swarm of bees, is the open cluster Pleiades. In Greek mythology, the Hyades were the five daughters of Atlas and half-sisters to the Pleiades.
The stars in the Hyades cluster are estimated to be about 625 million years old; a lot older than the stars in the Pleiades cluster.
Finding the Hyades Cluster
The Hyades cluster is pretty easy to find and you will be able to look at it in the western sky after sunset during the first half of April. It will get a little lower in the night sky every night until it is no longer visible above the horizon.
From the constellation Orion
By using Orion’s Belt, a compact and noticeable line of three blue-white stars in the constellation Orion the Hunter. Draw a line westward (generally toward your sunset direction) through the Belt stars, and you will come to the bright reddish star Aldebaran, the Bull’s fiery red eye. You should then be able to make out the V shape of the Hyades cluster.
The V-shaped figure of stars (except Aldebaran) highlights the brightest of the Hyades’ few hundred stars. A dozen or more Hyades stars are visible to the unaided eye in a dark sky, but several dozen of the cluster’s stars can be resolved through binoculars or low power in a telescope.
By the middle of April Venus will form the top of a triangle with Hyades and Pleiades on the 2 points of the triangle’s base.
Clips taken from Stellarium.org
Sirius is not only the brightest star in the Canis Majoris (the Great Dog) constellation, but the brightest in the entire sky! Sometimes called the “the dog star,” Sirius is also one of the closest stars to us at a distance of just 8.6 light years. For comparison, the Sun is just 8 light minutes from Earth and our nearest star is 4.2 light years away.
Sirius is a winter star and is approaching the end of its season in the north. You can easily find it after sunset, a bright white beacon low in the SSW. If you know the constellation of Orion (the Hunter), just follow the line made by the three stars of his belt down to the left and you’ll find Sirius. You can’t miss it! Sirius is easily seen with the naked eye and is currently visible until around midnight. But hurry; after the end of April it doesn’t reappear in the night sky until September.
Sirius has been a familiar sight in the sky for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians associated it with the god Osiris, and its appearance ahead of the sun in the early morning heralded the flooding of the Nile river and Egypt’s season of fertility and growth.
Although Sirius looks like just one bright star, it’s really two stars orbiting each other. The brightest, Sirius A is twice as massive as the Sun and 25 times more luminous. The fainter star, Sirius B (sometimes called “the pup”), is much smaller and orbits Sirius A about once every 50 years. Sirius B was once a much more massive star, bigger even than Sirius A, but consumed all its hydrogen and collapsed into what astronomers call a white dwarf star around 120 million years ago. It’s now even smaller than the Earth, but with about the same mass as the Sun!
Fun Facts about Sirius
Finding Sirius (from Stellarium.org)
Polaris is also called the Pole Star or the North Star. You can always see it in our night sky whatever time of the night or whatever time of the year. In fact it is even there in the day time we just cannot see it because the Sun (our star) is so bright it washes out all the other stars.
Polaris is in the constellation Ursa Minor (the little bear). It is a very important star especially for navigation because the axis of Earth is approximately aligned to the star. What does that mean? If you were able to draw a line from the North Pole straight up into space it would point to Polaris (well almost!). The line represents the Earth’s axis. The Earth spins around its axis once every day and because the axis pretty much lines up with Polaris then this is the only star in the northern hemisphere sky that doesn’t appear to move over the period of the night. Everything else appears to move around it because the earth is spinning. So Polaris tells you where north is.
Another important thing about Polaris for celestial navigation (finding your way around using the stars to guide you) is that it can tell you your latitude. The angle that Polaris makes with the horizon is your latitude north of the equator. If you were standing on the North Pole, Polaris would be right above your head. If you were at the equator Polaris would be in line with the horizon. The equator has a latitude of 0 degrees and the North Pole is at latitude 90 degrees north.
Polaris has not always been the Pole Star (North Star) and it won’t be the Pole Star forever. Even though it will still be called Polaris because that is its designated name, it won’t always point to the north celestial pole. Over a period of 26,000 years the Earth wobbles on its axis a bit like a gyroscope. This is called precession. Have a look at the astronomy glossary for an explanation of precession.
This beautiful image was taken by Verity Stannard who is a member of staff at The Observatory Science Centre.
Facts about Polaris
You will need to be able to locate the plough in the constellation of Ursa Major. Look at the map below. It also looks like a saucepan.
The 2 stars at the edge of the pan are called Merak and Dubhe. Draw an imaginary line from Merak, through Dubhe and keep going until you come to the next nearest bright star; this is Polaris.
It is about 25 degrees away from Dubhe. If you spread out your hand with your fingers as wide as they can go and then hold your hand up to the sky at arms-length then the distance between your thumb and little finger is about 25 degrees (this obviously depends on how big your hand is! It is based on an average adult hand).
Clips taken from Stellarium.org
Finding Polaris from the Plough
Merak and Dubhe point to Polaris
Many people think the stars are colourless, or all white, but if you venture outdoors on a cold winter night and look south you’ll see at least one star that is noticeably red. This is the star Betelgeuse, normally the ninth brightest star in the sky (but see Fun Facts below) and conspicuous as the left hand shoulder of the Orion constellation (the Hunter). Betelgeuse is bright partly because it’s relatively close to us (a mere 640 or so light years) and partly because it is very big and luminous (about 100,000 times more luminous than the Sun). The star is what we call a red supergiant, with a surface radius that would extend to the orbit of Jupiter if it was at the centre of our own solar system. That’s five times the distance of the earth to the Sun!
To find Betelgeuse, look above and to the right of the brightest star, Sirius, and above and left of the three stars in a line that make up Orion’s belt. But don’t hang about. Orion is fast dropping below the western horizon and if you don’t look soon after it gets dark now you may miss your chance until Autumn!
Although less than 10 million years old, Betelgeuse is a dying star. Its mass is 30 times that of our Sun and it’s fast consuming its hydrogen, such that it’s expected to explode as a supernova in the next million years or so. When it finally goes “pop” it will be the brightest star in the sky and even visible even in daytime. Its core will have fused carbon, neon, oxygen and then silicon until all that is left is a hyper-dense core - a rapidly spinning neutron star the size of a city but with a mass greater than that of the Sun!
No-one is really sure how to pronounce “Betelgeuse” because it derives from the Arabic “Ibt al Jauzah,” which is said to mean “the armpit of the central one” or “hand of al-Jauza" (Orion). The best guess is thought to be “bet-uhl-gurz” but it’s often pronounced in English as “beetle juice” which may not be accurate but is certainly fun!
Finding Betelgeuse (from Stellarium.org).
Capella, sometimes called the “Goat Star,” is the bright, golden star currently shining above Venus in the West after dusk. Just 42 light years away (very much a stellar neighbour), Capella is the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer) and the sixth brightest in Earth’s skies. Using very large telescopes astronomers have discovered Capella is actually not one star but four!
Two of the stars are yellow giants, just under 10 times the diameter of the Sun and orbiting each other very closely. Despite their size they are only around 60 million miles apart, or about two-thirds the distance of Earth from the Sun. The surface temperature of these two stars is similar to the Sun’s, which is why Capella appears yellow in our sky. In fact, the Sun would appear similarly golden in the sky of a planet (if there were one!) orbiting Capella, although much fainter because of the Sun’s smaller size. In every other way, though, Capella’s stars are very different from our own. These giant stars have burnt up their hydrogen, expanded, and are well on their way to becoming cool, dying red giant stars.
The other two stars gravitationally part of the Capella system are about one light year away from the yellow giants and, although faint, can be seen with amateur telescopes. These are long-lived, red dwarf stars smaller and cooler than our sun, which are using up their hydrogen fuel at a much slower rate.
Capella’s other name of the “Goat Star” is thought to derive from an ancient association of the constellation of Auriga with a goatherd. It’s also why the three stars at the top right in Auriga are often called “The Kids.” Auriga is linked to the ancient Greek sea god Poseidon and the Roman god Neptune.
Fun Facts about Capella
You can find Capella by making a triangle with Betelgeuse and Aldebaran or you can find the distinctive W of Cassiopeia and draw an imaginary line from the W (see the picture below),
Finding Capella (from Stellarium.org)
The annual Lyrids meteor shower can be seen between 16-28 April. The particles causing the meteors, come from the comet C/1861 G1 (Thatcher). Comet Thatcher takes 415 years to complete a full orbit of the Sun. The peak of the shower when the intensity of meteors coming through our atmosphere is at its highest, will be around 6pm on Wednesday 22 April but the Sun will not be setting until 8.09pm so you won't see them at that time and it will be better to see them earlier than that (see below).
The reason why the meteor shower is called the Lyrids is because the point in the sky where the meteors appear to come from (the radiant) is in the constellation Lyra. This constellation will be rising above the eastern horizon at about 8.30pm on the 22nd April but it will be very low on the horizon to begin with. The very bright star Vega is in the constellation Lyra and this is how you will be able to locate where the meteors will be coming from. See the image taken from Stellarium.org to find out where to look on the 22nd April after dark. Even though Lyra rises not that long after sunset and you may spot a meteor or two, the best viewing time will be between midnight and dawn on the 22nd.
The meteors will form streaks of light coming from a point close to Vega which will be high in the eastern sky before dawn. The Lyrids can produce up to 18 meteors per hour, with occasional fireballs. A nearly new moon will leave the skies nice and dark for this year's shower.
See Meteor Shower in the astronomy glossary for more information about meteors and why we see them as streaks of light across the night sky.
There is a full Moon on the 7th May and by some definitions it is a ‘Supermoon’ but by others it isn’t. So what is a ‘Supermoon’ and why do experts disagree about what constitutes a ‘Supermoon.’
What is a ‘Supermoon’
The orbit of the moon around Earth is elliptical (see diagram). You will notice that the closest point is called perigee and the furthest point is called apogee. ‘Supermoons’ occur when the full or new Moon coincides or is close to perigee. Of course the Moon isn’t actually any larger than normal it just looks larger because it is closer to us. If you measured the angular diameter between the full Moon at perigee and the full Moon at apogee there would be a 14% difference. Also because it is closer it is brighter. A full Moon at perigee is 30% brighter than a full Moon at apogee. You cannot really see a huge difference between full Moons. You can often get the illusion it is bigger when it rises over the horizon and you compare it with things like trees or buildings on the horizon. So why the disagreement? It’s all in the definition!
What is the definition of a ‘Supermoon’
First of all it is important to say that ‘Supermoon’ is not an official astronomical term and there are differences in the way the term is interpreted. In fact The International Astronomical Union (IAU) who are responsible for naming and defining things in astronomy have not actually recognised the term ‘Supermoon.’
Originally it was an astrologer called Richard Nolle in 1979 who coined the term ‘Supermoon.’ He defined a ‘Supermoon’ as a full or new Moon which comes within 90% of its closest approach to Earth (perigee). So what does that mean?
The average closest approach is about 362,600 km but the range is between 356,500 and 370,400 km. Each orbit of the Moon around the Earth has a slightly different perigee and apogee distance.
So why do people sometimes disagree?
You can determine whether or not the full Moons in any given year are ‘Supermoons’ two different ways:
1. Calculating the difference between the year’s furthest distance (apogee) and the year’s closest distance (perigee) and taking that number to calculate the maximum distance from Earth when a full moon can be classed as a ‘Supermoon.’
March 24, 2020 is furthest apogee: 406,692 km
April 7, 2020 closest perigee: 356,907 km.
Difference: 49,785 km.
90% of the difference = 44,807 km.
Apogee – difference (406,692 – 44,807) = 361,885 km so any full Moon coming closer than this would be classed as a ‘Supermoon’ in 2020.
2. Calculating the distance of the full Moon relative to the most recent apogee and perigee (Jan/Feb and Apr/May only: the March and April full Moons fall as ‘Supermoons’ under both definitions).
January 29, 2020 apogee: 405,393 km
February 10, 2020 perigee: 360,461 km
Difference: 44,932 km
February 9, 2020 full moon: 362,479 km
Difference: 405,393 – 362,479 = 42,914 km
42,914 / 44,932 x 100 = 95.5%
April 20, 2020 apogee: 406,463 km
May 6, 2020 perigee: 359,656 km
Difference: 46,807 km
May 7 full Moon: 361,184 km
Difference: 406,463 – 361,184 = 45,279 km
45,279 / 46,807 x 100 = 96.7%
So what does this show?
|Date of Full Moon||Distance km||Definition 1||Definition 2|
|February 9 2020||362,479||NOT Supermoon||Supermoon|
|March 9 2020||357,404||Supermoon||Supermoon|
|April 8 2020||357,035||Supermoon||Supermoon|
|May 7 2020||361,184||Supermoon||Supermoon|
Given the narrower definition (definition 1), the full moon on February 9, 2020, is not a supermoon, but given the broader one, it is.
Take your choice!
What’s in a name?
Full Moons are often named. This is especially true for the Native Americans who tracked the changing seasons by the lunar month rather than the solar year. Here is a list of full Moon names for the year.
|Full Moon Month||Native American Name||Other Names|
|January||Wolf Moon||Moon afer Yule; Old Moon; Ice Moon; Snow Moon|
|February||Snow Moon||Hunger Moon; Storm Moon|
|March||Worm Moon (Earth worms coming out at the end of winter)||Crow Moon; Crust Moon; sap Moon; Sugar Moon; Chaste Moon; Lentern Moon|
|April||Pink Moon (from the pink of the emerging Phlox flowers)||Sprouting Grass Moon; Fish Moon; Hare Moon; Egg Moon; Paschal Moon|
|May||Flower Moon||Corn Planting moon; Milk Moon|
|June||Strawberry Moon||Hot Moon; Mead on; Rose Moon|
|July||Buck Moon||Thunder Moon; Wort Moon; Hay Moon|
|August||Sturgeon Moon||Green Corn Moon; Barley Moon; Fruit Mon; Grain Moon|
|September||Harvest Moon* or Corn Moon||Harvest Moon*; Full Corn Moon; Barley Moon|
|October||Hunter’s Moon||Ying Grass Moon; Blood Moon**; Sanguine Moon|
|November||Beaver Moon||Moon; Oak Moon|
|December||Cold Moon||Moon before Yule|
*Technically, the Harvest Moon is the Full Moon closest to the September equinox around September 22. Most years it is in September, but around every three years, it is in October. The Harvest Moon is the only Full Moon name which is determined by the equinox rather than a month.
** this should not be confused with a total eclipse of the Moon
Image cortesy NASA
Regulus is one of two conspicuous stars (the other, brighter one, is Arcturus) in the Spring southern sky just after dark. Unlike the bright orange ember of Arcturus, Regulus is a fierce blue-white colour, which tells astronomers it’s a lot hotter!
It’s easy to find Regulus, as it provides the dot at the bottom of the reverse question mark that is the head and forequarters of Leo, the constellation of the lion. Dubbed “Heart of the Lion” (or Qalb al-Asad) by ancient arab astronomers, Regulus is about 79 light years from us, so relatively local. Its main star, Regulus A (like most stars, it’s yet another multiple star system) is more than twice as hot as the Sun at 12,190 degrees C. In fact, Regulus A beats the Sun on just about every metric. It’s almost four times the Sun’s mass, three times as wide and about 288 times brighter!
Like the Sun, though, Regulus is a “main sequence” middle-aged star, which means it still gains its energy by fusing hydrogen, the lightest element, into helium. Regulus A also has, like many of us middle-aged, a fat midriff, though this is due to its spin rather than to extra portions of cake. The star spins very fast on its axis, rotating once in just 16 hours. This makes it bulge outward, so it’s not so much spherical as egg-shaped.
Regulus A’s companions are two red dwarfs (much fainter, cooler and smaller stars) at around 4,200 times the distance between Earth and the Sun away. There is thought to be a fainter companion, the dying ember of a star with the Sun’s mass but only about the size of the Earth. Astronomers call these stars white dwarfs, and it’s how the Sun will end its life in about 4-5 billion years.
Finding Regulus from the Plough (from Stellarium.org) at sunset mid-May.
Arcturus can be found from the tail of the great bear Ursa Major (or the handle of the saucepan). If you follow the arc of these 4 stars to the next brightest star you will find Arcturus. You can easily remember this because you arc to Arcturus. It is the brightest star in the constellation Boötes the herdsman or bear keeper. In fact Arcturus is the fourth brightest star the night sky. It is also part of the asterism called the Spring Triangle which includes Spica in Virgo and Regulus in Leo (or Denebola in Leo).
When you find the star you should see that it looks an orange/red colour. This is because it is a red giant star. The colour is an indication of its surface temperature. Red stars are cooler than blue stars. It is 36.7 light years away from our Sun which is quite close relatively speaking. It is a lot older than our Sun at about 7.1 billion years old and although it is only 1.8 times the mass of our Sun, as an aging star it has expanded to over 25 times the diameter of our Sun. It is 170 times as luminous as our Sun and has a magnitude of -0.04.
Fun Facts about Arcturus
Finding Arcturus from the Plough. Clip from Stellarium.org
One of the brightest comets of the year was going to be visible from now until the middle of June, according to astronomers but it has unfortunately now disintegrated. Alas this is often the story about Comets. In the words of the amateur astronomer David H Levy: "Comets are like cats, they have tails and they do precisely what they want."
Officially known as C/2020 F8 (SWAN), the comet was only just discovered in late March. It takes its name from the Solar Wind ANisotropies (SWAN) camera, which on 25 March captured images of the comet from on board the European Space Agency and NASA's SOHO spacecraft.
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) has said that the comet is fairly bright but fading - and that the best chance of seeing it in the UK was from late May through to early June. The RAS made a guide to spotting the comet in the early evening. With the help of binoculars the comet should have been visible in the north-western sky after sunset, fairly close to the horizon. If you managed to see it - fabulous!
So what should you have been looking for - and what could you have seen?
Comets vary in size - some are the size of mountains, others as big as the Isle of Wight. They are composed of rock and ices, and spend much of their lives travelling through the cold of space. But when they approach the sun, they heat up and the ice begins to stream from the comet's surface. This is what gives them their distinct tails, which point directly away from the sun, rather than in the direction they have travelled from. Comets' tails can stretch for tens of millions of miles, and they are widely considered to be among the most beautiful images in astronomical history.
The RAS has issued guidance for those who do try to spot SWAN, advising them to "look for a haze of light marking the head of the comet - the cloud of gas and dust erupting from its surface"
Image of Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) obtained by UK astrophotographer Damian Peach on 2 May 2020. The long greenish tail emanates from the head of the comet at the top left of the image.
D. Peach / Chilescope team
Licence type: All Rights Reserved
Comet 2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was discovered on the 27th March 2020 by NASA’s Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft. It passed to within 43 million kilometres of the Sun at its closest point on the 3rd July (perihelion) and survived! It is now gracing the pre-dawn sky and at magnitude approximately 1.0 it can be seen with the unaided eye. As you can see from the image which was taken by our very own astronomer John Pilbeam on the morning of the 7th July, it has a pretty spectacular tail.
From the 8th July it became a circumpolar object and therefore never sets below the horizon. It is initially in the constellation of Auriga but this will change throughout the month – see diagram from Astronomy Now. At the beginning of the month it is best seen in the pre-dawn sky looking towards the north eastern horizon below the bright star Capella.
As the month progresses, the comet’s visibility improves and it gets higher in the sky as it moves north-eastwards through the constellation of Auriga. Hopefully, it will hold steady in brightness, but there’s no knowing exactly how it will behave as it pulls away from the Sun. In the words of the Canadian amateur astronomer David H. Levy "Comets are like cats: they have tails, and they do precisely what they want."
Towards the middle of the month you will be able to see it before 11pm looking towards the north-north-west and it will have moved into the constellation Lynx at about 20 degrees altitude.
Image by Greg Smye-Rumsby, courtesy of Astronomy Now.
By this time the comet has picked up speed in its motion across the sky as it heads towards closest approach to Earth, which occurs on 23 July when NEOWISE passes us at a distance of 103 million kilometres. At this time the comet will be in the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Between the 23rd and 28th July it will pass under the belly of the bear or if you prefer to see it as a saucepan, underneath the pan.
Try looking for the comet with a pair of binoculars first because it is quite a diffuse object and therefore not as easy to spot as a star of similar magnitude. After you spot it with the binoculars, try and find it with the unaided eye.
Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and at the moment is a bright prominent object in our night sky. It reaches opposition on the 14th July which means it lies on the opposite side of Earth to the Sun and is therefore around the time when it is closest to Earth. It will rise above the eastern horizon as the Sun is setting below the western horizon so you will see it all night long. Opposition marks the middle of the time when you can see Jupiter the best. It actually reaches its closest point this year on the 15th July and will be a mere 619.2 million kilometres away from Earth (4.14 Astronomical Units). At this point, light from Jupiter takes just over 34 minutes to reach our eyes. It is at its brightest around opposition at magnitude -2.7 and sticks out like a beacon.
You will see it in the southern sky crossing from east to west throughout the night. It lies in constellation Sagittarius or the Teapot. Interestingly the teapot asterism marks the direction of the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.
Jupiter won’t rise higher than 20 degrees this year so find a spot with a flat horizon that is as uninterrupted by buildings and trees as possible. It will come to its highest point due south at about 1am around the time of opposition but as the month progresses Jupiter will rise and set earlier each night. By the time it gets to late autumn Jupiter will be heading towards the western horizon when it gets dark.
See the images to find out where to look for Jupiter. If you have a pair of binoculars then look for the largest moons of Jupiter – the Galilean moons. These are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. While Io is the closest and Callisto the furthest away from Jupiter they do not always appear in that order because they are orbiting around Jupiter at different speeds and at different distances. In fact they are not always just on one side of the planet. To find out which moon is where on the night you are viewing, look at the website In The Sky (https://in-the-sky.org/jupiter.php). Sometimes you may not be able to see all 4 moons. This is because of their orbital motion. Sometimes they will disappear behind the planet (occultation) and sometimes they will cross the face of the planet during a transit. If they are crossing in front of Jupiter then their shadow can be seen on the face of the planet if you have a telescope. Unfortunately it’s not so easy if not impossible to see a shadow with binoculars. The moons will pass behind the planet from west to east and in front of the planet from east to west.
While 10 x 50 binoculars are good to use if the magnification of your binoculars is not as much as 10 then still have a go. I have seen them clearly with 8 x 56 (56 means they do let in more light but they don’t magnify as much). You will find that Jupiter and the moons wobble about a lot so rest your arms on something solid. This could be a gate or even a friend!
Image courtesy NASA. The black dot is a shadow of the moon Europa
Another feature on Jupiter is the Great Red Spot which can be seen on the NASA image. It is a storm that has been raging for hundreds of years. You will need a telescope to see this though.
This year we are treated to a double planet experience with Saturn rising closely behind Jupiter.
Clip taken from stellarium.org
Saturn is the second largest planet in our solar system and at the moment is a prominent object in our night sky following close behind much brighter Jupiter. It reaches opposition on the 20th July which means it lies on the opposite side of Earth to the Sun and is therefore around the time when it is closest to Earth. There is an opposition of Saturn every year but they occur about 2 weeks later than the previous year. The farther a planet is from the Sun, the shorter the period of time between successive oppositions.
It will rise above the eastern horizon as the Sun is setting below the western horizon so you will see it all night long at opposition. Opposition marks the middle of the time when you can see Saturn at its best because around this time it appears bigger and brighter. With a New Moon meaning the sky is as dark as it can be at this time of the year it will make it even better to see Saturn around opposition. It actually reaches its closest point to Earth 5 hours after opposition and will be a about 1.4 billion kilometres away from Earth (9 Astronomical Units). When close to Earth like this it takes light from Saturn about 1 hour 15 minutes to reach our eyes. It is at its brightest around opposition at magnitude 0.1.
You will see it in the southern sky crossing from east to west throughout the night. It lies in constellation Sagittarius or the Teapot. Interestingly the teapot asterism marks the direction of the centre of our Milky Way galaxy.
Like Jupiter it won’t rise higher than 20 degrees this year so find a spot with a flat horizon that is as uninterrupted by buildings and trees as possible. It will come to its highest point due south at about 1am around the time of opposition but as the month progresses Saturn will rise and set earlier each night. By the time it gets to late autumn Saturn will appear closer to Jupiter and heading towards the western horizon when it gets dark. Saturn and Jupiter will appear to be moving closer and closer to each other and on the 21st December there is a conjunction of the two plants. This means that they are located along the same line of site in space as viewed from Earth. By this time you will need a flat horizon and look as soon as it starts to get dark because they will be low on the western horizon setting at about 8pm (sunset is around 4pm on this day). It is worth having a look because a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter only occurs once every 20 years or so. See the image ‘Finding Jupiter and Saturn’ above this article for where to look for Saturn at the moment.
Saturn has the most beautiful of all the ring systems in our solar system. During this opposition they will be tilted about 21 degrees to our line of sight and we are looking at the northern hemisphere at the moment. Maximum tilt is around 27 degrees, so they are still well presented. It is very difficult if not impossible to see the rings through a pair of binoculars especially if they are only a modest magnification such as 10 times but don’t be put off having a go you may see that Saturn is a bit elongated. However, you need to hold your binoculars very steadily. Larger magnification means the binoculars tend to be heavier and even more prone to wobble so you will need a tripod or better still a telescope.
Image courtesy NASA
Mars is the outermost rocky planet of the inner solar system. It is about half the size of Earth. At the moment it is a pretty prominent object in our night sky following behind Saturn and Jupiter. It is brighter than Saturn but not as bright as Jupiter. In mid-July it is magnitude -0.8 but will be getter brighter and brighter as it heads towards opposition on the 13th October when it will reach magnitude -2.6 which will be brighter than Jupiter at that time. It will be a mere 62.06 million km away from Earth at opposition. Opposition is when the planets lying further out from the Sun than Earth are on the opposite side of Earth to the Sun and is therefore around the time when the planet is closest to Earth.
There is an opposition of Mars every 2 years and 50 days when it will be at its brightest. However, because of the elliptical nature of the orbit of Mars the distance from Earth at each opposition is not always the same. At opposition this year Mars will not be as bright as it was at opposition in 2018 because it is further away from Earth. The closest it can get to Earth at opposition is 0.37 Astronomical Units or 55,351,212 kilometres. This is called a perihelic opposition because Mars is at perihelion (closest to the Sun). The furthest it can be at opposition is 0.68 Astronomical Units or 101,726,552 kilometres, this is when Mars is at aphelion (furthest from the Sun). This makes quite a bit of difference to how bright Mars looks to us when we see it from Earth.
No matter how close or far away it always appears to be very red and is quite unmistakeable. The closer it is the redder it appears.
In mid-July it is rising at around midnight but will rises earlier and earlier each night and it will be visible in our evening sky throughout the rest of the year in the constellation of Pisces. You will see it in the southern sky crossing from east to west throughout the night. It will come close to passing into the constellation Cetus but from the 9th September Mars will appear to go backwards in the sky. This is retrograde motion as Earth ‘undertakes’ Mars in its orbit around the Sun. Retrograde motion will continue until 14th November.
The Perseids meteor shower occurs as Earth passes through the outskirts of a cloud of debris from comet Swift-Tuttle. The dust and bits of rock left behind are called meteoroids. As they enter the Earth's atmosphere they 'burn' up with the larger pieces producing bright streams - meteors - that you can see with the unaided eye before they fade away. These bright streams are also known as shooting stars and can be seen from 17th July until 24th August. The peak is actually in the morning of the 12th August (10:00 - 13:00) but look out for them on the evenings of the 11/12 and 12/13 August when you may see up to 60-80 shooting stars per hour. The phase of the Moon is one day after last quarter so it is still quite brights and will wash out the least bright of the meteors. However, it is always worth a look for those extra bright ones!
The radiant which is the point from which the meteors seem to appear lies in the north of the constellation Perseus. This is close to the border with the more prominent constellation of Cassiopeia (which looks like a W). The Perseids produce fast meteors with many bright events that often leave lingering trails.
Image captured from Stellarium.org