As we are leaving winter behind and entering spring, we finally might see some warmer weather and clearer skies (fingers crossed!), making stargazing and astronomy much easier and more pleasant. The downside is that nights are getting shorter, so you may have to stay up a little later to see fully dark skies, whereas in December it was pitch black by 5 o’clock (how depressing). I thought I would take you on a little tour of the night sky, giving you some constellations and fun astronomical phenomena to spot next time you notice the clouds have cleared!
Bear in mind that these photos were taken with a ‘proper’ camera, so unless you have very dark skies, you probably won’t see as many stars as shown in the image, just the brighter ones! Another thing for reference is that I live in a Bortle 5 area (somewhere with suburban levels of light pollution). The Bortle scale is a measure of light pollution, with 1 being an excellent darky sky site (think rural Australia/canada/north west scotland). You can find your local level of light pollution on this global map, and read more about what you can expect to see under different levels of light pollution in this AstroBackyard blog post or this quick table. And finally, although these stars and their locations will be similar for most of the northern hemisphere, but most accurate for observers close to the latitude of the UK.
Getting your bearings
If you don’t know your compass points in relation to your garden, a quick way is thinking which direction the sun rises: this is east. Then turn 90 degrees right to face south, another 90 to face west (where the sun sets) and a further 90 to see North. If it’s already dark, you can find Polaris (you’ll know how to find it by the end of the blog post!), which is always North. Or you can use google maps/a compass, but that’s not as fun.
The first time you go out, make a mental note of which directions you can or can’t see. This will help you when planning your observations or using software like Stellarium. For example I have a pretty good view east, but west is blocked by trees or houses, so if I want to observe something lower on the horizon to the west, I’ll have to leave my house.
Time for the tour
We’ll start the tour by facing south, simply because at the moment this is where one of the most recognisable constellations is found: Orion! If you go out at 8pm (this is the time I’ll use for all of the directions in this post), Orion can be found upright, slightly West of due South. I’m planning to do an in depth post about Orion, but some features to spot are:
- Orion’s belt: 3 stars in a line
- Betelguese: a bright red star marking Orion’s shoulder
- Orion’s Nebula: one of the few Messier objects and the only nebula visible to the naked eye. To the eye, it will look like a fuzzy star, but with a quick long exposure (on a camera or posh phone) you will be able to see the shape of the gas lit by the young stars forming there!
Above Orion, to the left, is Gemini. The whole constellation can be tricky to spot, but it should be fairly easy to find Pollux and Castor, the twin stars. Castor is the leading star, so will be on the right/ higher in the sky that Pollux.
At the foot of orion (slightly below and to the left) is Sirius, the dog star- the brightest star in the sky!
If you follow the direction the stars in the orion’s belt are pointing, you will find a small collection of stars that are in the shape of the big dipper/ursa major/plough constellation, but much smaller! These are the Pleiades (also known as the seven sisters). This is one of the other naked-eye members of the messier catalogue. The Pleiades is an open star cluster, full of hot blue stars, 450 light years from earth! At the moment, you will also be able to see Mars close to it (they came within 3 degrees of each other on 3/3/21). Mars looks like a bright orange ‘star’ but will appear to twinkle less than actual stars!
Between Orion and the Pleiades is Taurus. The most prominent stars form a V shape, but it’s actually a very long constellation, but it’s lower portion is hidden behind a tree from my view, as you can see below!
To the right of the pleiades, now facing due west, is Perseus. This constellation is a little more difficult to see, but that makes it all the more exciting when you do manage to connect the dots!
A more obvious constellation is Cassiopeia, also known as the ‘W’ constellation- although as the year goes by it rotates around the north star (polaris) so sometimes it looks more like an ‘M’ or a zigzag! This is what it looks like at the moment, but by the end of spring it will look like a W again.
Between and below Perseus and Cassiopeia, about 30 degrees (3 hand widths at arms length) above the horizon, is Andromeda, the closest galaxy to earth! It’s going to be getting lower and lower on the horizon until June, so make the most of it while it’s still high enough, otherwise you might have to wait until August/September (unless you live in a very flat area- I’m looking at you the Netherlands). I can hardly see this with the naked eye from where I live, but again a quick long exposure (just a few seconds!) shows it as a fuzzy bar! I think it’s absolutely mind blowing that we can see light that has literally been travelling for millions of years, only to be stopped by your retina or camera sensor!
I can’t see the galaxy anymore as my house is in the way, so this photo is from January.
Now we are going to take a big leap across the sky to another very recognisable constellation- the big dipper! Its actual name is ursa major- the great bear- but it has many names like the plough/big dipper. Comment below what you call it! Like Cassiopeia, it’s orientation varies wildly over the year: at the moment it is vertical on the north-eastern horizon (but it spans a huge section of the sky so it’s not hard to see!) and in summer it is directly overhead. This also happens to other constellations, but its most noticeable with these ones because they’re bright and easily recognisable, but also because they are close to the north star, so are always in the sky and rotate more obviously, whereas constellations like orion are only visible for parts of the year.
We can actually use the big dipper to spot Polaris, as contrary to popular belief, Polaris isn’t a particularly bright star (usually when people say they’ve seen the north star, they’ve actually seen a planet or a high altitude bright star like Vega/Arcturus/Capella). To find it, trace all the way around the big dipper from the handle until you get to the last main star, then keep going in that direction to find Polaris! If you set up a long exposure photograph pointing at polaris and its surrounding stars, you’ll get a really cool star track photograph!
Have you seen anything cool in the night sky recently? Comment below, and head to my Instagram stories to vote for your favourite famous constellation! If you want to learn more about amateur astronomy, head to my stargazing category, or to find out about the stories behind the constellations, check out this post!