If you Go Stargazing, there are many wonderful things you may see, some you will need telescopes or binoculars to get the best from, but many you can enjoy with just your naked eye.
The Milky Way
Probably the best naked eye wonder is the Milky Way — the holy grail of going stargazing – expect to notice a band of light often described as a smoke wave with darker ribbons running through it, the Milky Way is best seen in Autumn when it is high overhead and spans much of the sky. Unfortunately, the brightest part is not well placed for our Northern latitudes and will be near the horizon, or even under it.
At certain times of the year, we can observe frequent meteors, these showers are associated with debris left behind by the progress of comets through the Solar system. these dates are quite predictable and at these times as many as 100 or so meteors can be seen per hour.
We perceive the patterns of stars as representing shapes of things we recognise from our daily life, these groupings (we call them constellations) are not real, the alignment is merely a line of sight effect, as the stars are at hugely varying distances. There are 88 recognised constellations but most of us recognise a dozen or so – mainly due to the association with the zodiac – the band of sky where the planets can be found.
Stars are not usually alone and more often than not can be found in double, triple or even more complex associations – one favourite is the double star Albireo – the star at the tip of the long neck of Cygnus the Swan which is a lovely blue and Gold combination.
Stars can also be found in clusters – sometimes in loose open groups (called open clusters) or also in tighter balls (known as globular clusters) – these can be beautiful objects to look at with examples scattered all over the sky.
The great globular cluster in Hercules (above) can be seen even with a keen naked eye, as a slightly fuzzy star in a keystone shaped group of stars that can be found to the East of the square of Andromeda but binoculars or telescopes reveal it as a tight ball of about several hundred thousand stars.
Open clusters such as the Pleaides (or Seven sisters) are easier to spot, this mini version of the well known big dipper (or plough) is about as large as four full Moons and can be found to the right of Orion the Hunter, forming part of Taurus (the Bull) at which the mythical hunter appears to be taking aim.
The night sky also contains gas clouds, which we call nebulae, one of the most famous is the great cloud that forms the middle “star” in Orion’s sword, which when viewed with binoculars or telescopes shows itself to be a huge swirling cloud in space in which new stars are beginning to shine.
Other nebulae are the remnants of stars as they age and die, the remnants of these stars showing up as wisps of gas in circular shapes or more random shapes associated with the cataclysmic explosions of supernovae.
The characteristic swirling shape of the incredibly distant galaxies is iconic but quite difficult to see, even in large telescopes. One of the best is the Whirlpool galaxy that shows itself as a spiral that is actually in the process of merging with another smaller galaxy. This galaxy can be found quite close to the first star in the handle of the plough, that group of stars that is part of the larger constellation, Ursa Major (the Great Bear) – probably the most well known pattern of stars in the entire sky.
The Moon is also a great target, especially as the varying angle of light from the Sun presents a continually changing perspective, showing us different the different phases throughout the month. The best place to observe the Moon is along the shadow edge, where the low angle of sunlight, gives the longest shadows and shows the detail of the craters and mountains most obviously.
Another occasional highlight is phenomenon of a Lunar eclipse, this is when the Moon passes through the shadow of the Earth, this can make the Moon appreciable darken, but disappear, with some eclipses causing the Moon to appear to go quite red in colour.
All bar the most distant planets in the solar system can be seen with the naked eye, but all are much better with telescopes. By far the best to observe are Jupiter and Saturn, both of which show surface detail of cloud bands, rings and Moons orbiting them Jupiter s moons are also easy to see and can be observed circling their home planet, sometimes even causing shadows to appear on the planets surface, just as our own Moon shadows the earth during solar eclipses.
The name planet comes from the Greek for “wanderer” as the planets appear to wander across the sky rather than staying fixed in one location, this means that occasionally the planets form close alignments with each other called conjunctions – these can be interesting to see and photograph.
Planets are best observed when they are high in the sky in the middle of the night, this occurs when they are on the same side of the sun as us, ideally directly opposite – this is called opposition but the planets that orbit nearer to the sun than us (Mercury and Venus) can never be opposite the sun, and so are best seen when they are as far away from the sun (in terms of angle) from our perspective – this we call maximum elongation.
The Aurora (often called the Northern lights in the northern hemisphere) are a spectacle that once seen, is never forgotten. If you are lucky enough to live in the north part of the country and have a clear northern horizon, you may be lucky enough to see glowing arcs of light near the horizon. Occasionally the aurora is strong enough that the light-show can be seen further south, on rare occasions being seen as far south as the English south coast.
The phenomenon is caused by charged particles from the Sun, reaching Earth and interacting with the earths magnetic field, being funnelled towards the magnetic poles, and causing the atmosphere to glow the characteristic, red, green and purple.
Our Earth is being orbited by much more than our own natural satellite, the Moon, we now have hundreds of man made satellites orbiting us – these we can also easily see in the night sky. Some satellites are sufficiently large and have reflective solar panels and can appear to be very bright, the brightness varying as the panels catch the sunlight.
This variation is quite predictable with smart phone apps and web pages having the ability to alert you to where to look and when, to see them best.
The largest of these satellites, the International Space Station is also a frequent visitor, orbiting the Earth in about 90 minutes, 250 miles above the surface. As it passes over us, it appears to be one of the brightest objects in the night sky, taking a few minutes to drift out of view.