Stargazing in spring and summer
The night sky is constantly changing, depending on the time of year and the time of night. Look out for constellations, planets and meteor showers in the spring and summer skies. ‘Go stargazing’ is no. 27 in our list of ‘50 things to do before you’re 11¾’, and the kids will love getting involved.
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.Our science experts have compiled a simple guide to the the night sky during spring and summer. Discover which planets and constellations to look out for, and watch our video to pick up some handy hints.
Spring 2016 highlight: Jupiter in Opposition
Jupiter, the largest of the major planets in our solar system, makes its closest approach to Earth on March 8, 2016. It will also lie opposite to the Sun, with light from our star illuminating its face and making it brighter and more visible than at any other time of the year.
Even at Jupiter’s closest approach to the Earth it will only look like a bright spot of light to the naked eye, but with a good pair of binoculars you should be able to see Jupiter's four largest moons, appearing as bright dots on either side of the planet. With a medium-sized telescope, you should be able to make out some of the details in Jupiter's cloud bands.
A constellation is a grouping of stars that we see as a specific shape. Some are easier to spot than others. ‘The Plough is easy to spot if you imagine you’re looking for the shape of a saucepan’, advises Nick Allison, Park Manager at Morden Hall. If you imagine a line rising up from the last two stars in the Plough, it will lead up to the North Star.
As the seasons change, the stars in the southern sky change too. In spring you can still see Orion. Lying towards Orion you can also see the heads and stick figures of Gemini on a clear night. Look for the head of Leo the Lion to the left of Gemini. It sits just below the plough. In Roman mythology, Leo was the lion fought by Hercules.
Look out for Ursa Major, also known as the Great Bear, which 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.
If you follow the curve of the tail of the Great Bear (the Plough) backwards, you’ll 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.
If you follow the curve of the Plough’s handle you will eventually arrive at Arcturus, which can help you join up the northern and southern sky. On a particularly dark summer’s night, look out for our galaxy, the Milky Way.
‘If you can get somewhere with very little light pollution you can easily make out our galaxy,’ says Saul Burton, Park Manager at Erddig.
The Milky Way is a flat spiral, but from our perspective it looks like a bright band across the sky.
Look out for the Summer Triangle, which makes up the body of Cygnus, the swan. If you’re very lucky, you may be able to make out Cygnus ‘flying’ down the Milky Way.
Shooting stars and satellites
If you get the timing right a meteor shower can be an incredible spectacle – but you will need to be patient. Look out for meteor showers in May and August. If a light is moving slowly across the sky and it isn’t flashing then it’s likely to be a satellite.
The Lyrid meteor shower – April’s shooting stars – lasts from about April 16th to 25th. Unfortunately in 2016 the full moon almost exactly coincides with the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower, and the glare will block out all but the brightest meteors. If you are patient, you should still be able to catch a few good ones. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight between the 22nd and 23rd April.
Did you know? You can register on the NASA website to receive an email about when the International Space Station will pass over your house.
On 9 May 2016 Mercury, our smallest planet, will transit the sun. You’ll need a telescope and a bit of special equipment (you can make you own) to see it though.
Never look directly at the sun through a telescope or binoculars. You will damage your eyes, and may even suffer permanent blindness if you do. But you can make a simple pinhole viewer and use a small telescope to watch the tiny planet cross the face of the sun.