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Fabulous Frosty Night Ahead!

Finally, FINALLY it looks like we’re going to have a clear night across much of the UK tonight, and there are even predictions of a “hard frost” in places, so it looks like skywatchers and stargazers, starved for a long time now of anything to see, will be able to get out and enjoy a beautiful starry night tonight. Telescopes and cameras will be out, and amateur astronomers will be gleefully hunting down nebulae, galaxies, star clusters and comets until they get frostbite…

Of course, that’s fine if you know what you’re looking for, or at. What if you don’t? What if you’re not an amateur astronomer, but you want to go out tonight and enjoy looking at the beautiful clear, starry sky? What will you be able to see in it?

Read on… 🙂

The first thing you’ll notice when you go outside after dark, around 8.30pm maybe, is that there is a very – very! – bright star blazing high in the south. It will look “big” to your eye, and a beautiful blue-white colour, like a diamond. What is this star? Well, it’s not actually a star – it’s a planet. It’s JUPITER, the largest of all the planets!

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Jupiter is so huge it’s twelve times wider than the Earth, so enormous it could contain a thousand Earths! And unlike Earth, which is a solid body, Jupiter is essentially a massive bloated ball of gases and liquids. Astronomers call it a “gas giant”, and if you flew there you couldn’t land on it because there’s nothing TO land on! A thick churning atmosphere painted with countless thousands of storms is what we see when we look at it through a telescope, or on images taken by space probes sent there. So, there, you see? You don’t need a telescope to see something amazing in the night sky. Tonight you’ll be able to see Jupiter, King of the Planets, with just your naked eye, as soon as it gets dark. In fact, look overhead at around seven o’clock, when it’s still too light to see any stars, and you’ll see Jupiter shining there already…

Having found Jupiter, what else can you see tonight? Well, look just below Jupiter and you’ll see a rather noticeable pattern of stars, looking like an hourglass…

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This is the famous constellation “Orion”, one of the most famous constellations in the whole sky (and there are 88 of those, by the way). All its stars are fainter than Jupiter, but on a clear night like tonight is expected to be you’ll be able to see them easily with the naked eye. Looking at Orion you’ll notice there is a line of three stars, all of roughly the same brightness, in its middle. You already know what this is, even if you haven’t seen it before, because it’s very famous – this is “Orion’s Belt”!

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Why does a pattern of stars even have a belt? Because Orion is named after a famous mythical hunter, and, like all good hunters, Orion had a belt to keep his clothes on while he was running around chasing his prey, that’s why!

Orion’s belt isn’t just a striking trio of stars, it’s also very useful for helping skywatchers find other things in the night sky. If you imagine it as an arrow pointing down to the left, it will guide you to a very bright blue white star…

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This star is called “Sirius” and it’s the brightest star in the whole sky. You’ll have seen it before, many times, I’m sure, especially on cold and frosty winter nights when it is higher than it is now. Sirius appears to sparkle and flash like a jewel. It doesn’t actually change brightness tho, that’s just its light being broken up and distorted as it passes through our atmosphere.

Having found Sirius, go back to Orion’s Belt and this time imagine it as an arrow pointing upwards to the right. Then it will guide you to a small knot or clump of small, faint blue stars, which – if you have good eyesight – might remind you of a miniature version of the famous Big Dipper. This group (or “cluster”) of stars is called “The Pleiades” to astronomers, but it also has a popular nickname – “The Seven Sisters”…

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Why is it called that? Because if you have good eyesight, and are looking at the sky from somewhere really dark,  you can see seven stars in the cluster. Those with poorer eyesight, or looking at it from somewhere with light pollution, won’t see as many. But if you have a pair of binoculars handy you will be able to see the cluster’s seven brightest stars easily, and many more fainter ones too.

Right, what’s next? Well, if you can stay out until around half past nine, and can bear to leave Orion behind – we’ll come back later, don’t worry  – you should look way, waay over to Orion’s left, to the east, and look for an orange-red star quite low down, with a fainter, bluer star close to its lower right…

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As the picture tells you, this red star isn’t a star, it’s another planet – the famous planet “Mars”. The blue star close by is called “Spica”.

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If you’re somewhere really dark you’ll notice Mars’s red colour is very obvious. That’s because the planet – which is half the size of Earth, and very cold, as it’s much further from the Sun than we are – has a very dusty, rusty surface. Through a telescope astronomers can see features and markings on its surface, but your binoculars won’t show them, sorry.

Now, if you can stay out – or if you go back inside to warm up and come back out again later – you’ll be able to see a THIRD planet in the sky, possibly the most famous planet of all – Saturn! Saturn currently lies to the lower left of Mars, but it doesn’t rise until around 11pm, so it’s a bit harder to see than Jupiter, which is already visible after sunset, or Mars, which rises at just after 8pm. Saturn definitely looks more yellow than red Mars or blue-white Jupiter, and there are no other bright stars close to it so you’ll be able to spot it pretty easily.

Saturn is, of course, famous for its beautiful rings, and at the moment astronomers are drooling over them as they gaze at them through their telescopes, because the rings look particularly stunning at the moment… but you do need a telescope to see them, a pair of binoculars just isn’t powerful enough, sorry. But hey, just finding Saturn in the sky tonight will be pretty amazing, don’t you think? 🙂

Oh, I said I was going to go back to Orion, didn’t I? Well, if you’re out at around 8pm, as the sky is getting nice and dark, find Orion’s Belt, and then look just below it on the left hand side. Look closely and you’ll see a shorter, vertical line of three more stars, fainter than those in the Belt…

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What is it? Well, all hunters need weapons, and this is one of Orion’s…

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To the naked eye the Sword does look just like a small line of three stars. But if you look at it through binoculars you’ll see this…

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The middle star of the Sword isn’t a star at all. It’s a “nebula”, a huge cloud of gas and dust where stars are being born, in other words a “stellar nursery”. Through a good small telescope it looks like this…

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…and long exposure photographs taken through large telescopes look like this…

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But it’s important to note astronomers don’t see those colours through their telescopes, they only appear on long exposure photographs when the faint hues and shades have built up over several hours.

So, there you go… assuming the weather forecasters are correct, and it is clear and frosty, if you wrap up warm you will be able to see some pretty fantastic sights in the sky tonight. Tip: although you will be able to see all these things from your garden (unless you live in the middle of a big town or city, where there are so many lights they ruin our view of the night sky) if you possibly can, find and go somewhere properly dark, even if it’s just the park or school playing field up the road. The darker your observing site, the more stars you’ll see, and the brighter and clearer they’ll be, too. If you can jump in the car and get out of town altogether, out into the countryside, boy, you’ll be in for a treat. The sky will be ablaze with stars!

And if you’re a real night owl – or if you set your alarm for silly o’clock – the sky will be beautiful as dawn approaches too. If you go outside around 5am, just as the eastern sky is brightening, you’ll see something truly lovely…

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Look at that, a planetary parade! On either side of the Moon you’ll see a planet or planets. To the Moon’s right, Saturn and Mars will still be visible. To the Moon’s left. low down, Venus will be blazing brilliantly, looking like a lantern shining in the sky.

Obviously there’s a lot more to see if you know what you are looking for, have a telescope and know the sky, but this is a guide to the most obvious things people with no big fancy observing equipment  and no prior knowledge of the sky.  I hope you’ve found this guide useful, and will head out this evening and enjoy this long overdue fabulous frosty night!

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2 Responses

  1. Hey there! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new
    iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts!
    Keep up the fantastic work!

  2. Hi there! I feel so fortunate to have found you!! Your blog has been fascinating and I have learned a lot too…so thank you for taking time out to teach us stargazers more about the night sky and posting brilliant and breathtaking photo’s as well. Looking forward to reading more…really like your writing style!!

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