What to look out for when stargazing in spring

Stargazing at night with telescopes © The Secret Studio / Steve Sayers

Stargazing at night with telescopes

The night sky is constantly changing, depending on the time of year and the time of night. Spring brings warmer weather and you don’t need to stay out too late to see the stars, so it can be a great time for beginners and families to start stargazing – one of our 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ activities.

Our science experts have compiled a simple guide to the night sky in spring. Watch our video and be inspired. Discover which planets and constellations you can see and how you can spot the International Space Station.

Spring 2015 highlights
'There will be some nice planet-spotting opportunities this spring and conjunctions of the planets with the Moon – when they line up so that they look close together in the sky – which is a beautiful sight. We’ll also witness a partial solar eclipse in March.’
- Rod Hebden, science expert

Solar eclipse
‘Solar eclipses – when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, partially or fully blocking the Sun – have fascinated mankind for as long as we’ve looked to the skies. Many civilisations tried to predict when they might happen, possibly using ancient astronomical monuments such as at Stonehenge and Avebury.

'It’s only since Isaac Newton, inspired by the apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor, worked out how the planets moved under the force of gravity that we really understood how they happened.

‘On 20 March the UK witnessed a partial solar eclipse. The next significant partial solar eclipse visible in the UK will take place in August 2026. The next total solar eclipse will take place in September 2090.’
- Rod Hebden, science expert


The Bears
‘For me spring is about bears. Ursa Major, also known as the Great Bear, is a really easy constellation to spot as it incorporates the Plough. From there you can look up to Polaris, the North Star, which is also the tip of the tail of Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.
- Rod Hebden, science expert

The Plough
'This constellation (also called the Big Dipper) is easy to spot if you imagine that you're looking for the shape of a saucepan. It's visible all year from the UK. If you imagine a line rising up from the last two stars in the Plough it will lead up to the North Star.'
- Nick Allison, park manager

The Herdsman
‘Follow the curve of the tail of the Great Bear (the Plough) backwards, and you’ll quickly find a bright star called Arcturus, which is the brightest star in the constellation of Bootes, also known as the Herdsman. The Herdsman follows the bears around the sky as they circle the North Star throughout the night.’
- Rod Hebden, science expert

The Lion
‘Leo can be seen in springtime and sits just below the Plough. It really does look like a crouching lion. In Roman mythology Leo is the lion that was fought by Hercules.’
- Rod Hebden, science expert

Finding constellations
‘With the free software Stellarium you can see how far away each star is in light years and therefore how far back in time you are seeing. Are you seeing starlight from the swinging 60s or the time of King Henry VIII?’
- Guy Salkeld, fascinated member of staff

Satellites and the International Space Station
‘If you get the timing right you can see the International Space Station. There are people up there so don’t forget to wave.’
- Saul Burton, stargazer and park manager

If a light is moving slowly across the sky and it isn’t flashing then it's likely to be a satellite. On the NASA website you can register for an email update when the International Space Station passes over your house.

Shooting stars
‘Meteors, or shooting stars, are simply small pieces of dust from space which burn up as they hit our atmosphere, making a streak of light across the sky. If you’re lucky, you can spot them at any time of year, but when the Earth passes through a trail of dust left by a passing comet we get a meteor shower.

‘You can expect anything from 10-100 meteors an hour during a meteor shower. If you get the timing right on a clear night, a meteor shower can be an incredible spectacle. They do still require a little patience though so might not be ideal for very young children.

'The next big meteor shower – Perseids – is in the summer, but Eta Aquarids (the result of the Earth passing through dust left by Halley’s Comet) will produce a modest meteor shower this spring, peaking on 6 May.’
- Rod Hebden, science expert

Solar system and the Milky Way

‘Planets are often the easiest things to spot with the naked eye and this spring Venus and Jupiter are really stealing the show. They look just like stars, they’re just that bit brighter. Venus is usually the first ‘star’ you can see in the sky every evening – which is why it’s so often called the Evening Star.

‘Look out for evening conjunctions of the Moon with Venus in March and April and the Moon in conjunction with Jupiter in May.’
- Rod Hebden, science expert

The Moon
‘People used to think that the Moon was a perfect sphere. But if you’ve got binoculars you can see that it’s covered in craters and the edges are bumpy. Can you imagine people walking on its surface?’
- Rod Hebden, science expert

What better way to start your stargazing extravaganza than by watching our own star set? Share your favourite shots with us on Facebook or Twitter.

The Milky Way
‘If you can get somewhere with very little light pollution you can easily make out our galaxy, the Milky Way. It's a flat spiral but from our perspective looks like a bright band across the sky.’
- Saul Burton, stargazer and park manager.