So. You are keen to get out there and do some observing. The stars are out. But which is which?
When you are a beginner, there's a lot to learn in a short time. But you don't have to go it alone – we're here to help. This page will get you started. Even so, the only way you can really do it is to go out and see for yourself.
Oh, the usual Health and Safety warning. It can get pretty cold out there, so put your coat on. This is not your mother talking, it just makes sense. The more comfortable you are, the better you will enjoy stargazing. Who cares if it's an anorak – no one can see you. And a bobble hat helps, too. A hoodie? That's up to you, as long as the hood doesn't cover your eyes when you look up....
You will need a star map, and you will need to know how it works. This may seem obvious, but there is a knack to understanding these things. Here's our map for this month:
All maps produced using Stellarium software.
Now don't write in and tell us that we have the points of the compass all wrong. This is a map of the sky, so you have to hold it over your head. When you do this, east and west will be the right way round.
It shows the whole sky, so the scale is quite small. Normally you turn to see different parts of it, so to see the view looking north, for example, hold the map upside down with north at the bottom.
The map shows the sky in mid month at about 8 pm, at the start of the month at 9 pm, or by the end of the month at 7 pm. All times are GMT, but remember that British Summer Time starts on Sunday 30 March so for two days you need to add an hour.
|TIP If you aren't sure of the direction of north from your location, click here for a page on Getting Your Bearings.|
If it all looks just like a lot of dots, and drives you dotty, here's the way to get to grips with the sky. Once you've worked out where south is, look to the left and you should see the very bright star Sirius – actually the brightest star in the night sky. Notice we said 'night sky' so we don't get messages from smartie pants saying that the Sun is the brightest star in the sky.
Look up to the right of Sirius and you should see Orion, with its line of three stars and other stars surrounding it. The star at its top left is Betelgeuse – what astronomers call 'Bet-el-jooze' and everyone else calls 'Beetlejuice'. Ignoring this insult to a perfectly well-behaved star, look now to the left of Beetlejuice – sorry, Betelgeuse – and find another bright star, Procyon. These three stars make up what is called the Winter Triangle. You can see this area in greater detail on the map below.
High up above Procyon is a pair of stars called Castor and Pollux. Thank you, we've had enough jokes about star names for one month, so let's just point out that these are the main stars of Gemini, the Twins. Click to find out more about these stars and the constellation. This year, 2014, Jupiter is nearby and is outshining both of them.
Farther to the left (or the east, to be accurate) is the constellation of Leo. And immediately above Orion is the constellation of Auriga, with its bright star Capella, which is actually almost overhead.
The really tricky one is Cancer, the Crab. Though everyone knows its name because it's in the Zodiac, it's very hard to find if your skies are all aglow with streetlights. In fact, you can hardly see any of its stars on our map, which only shows the brighter stars. But it's between Gemini and Leo, and it's well worth finding because it contains one of the sky's best star clusters, the Beehive. To find it, click here to find out more, and you'd better beehive yourself.
If you want a map with all the constellation names on it, click here. You can set iy for any time of the night you choose.
You can't miss Jupiter as it's the brightest object in the night sky (apart from the Moon), and is brighter even than the brightest star, Sirius. It's high up in the south and is is worth looking at it through binoculars, as you should see three or four of its moons like tiny stars on either side of it. With a telescope you can see a couple of its dark equatorial belts as well. Notice that unlike Sirius it doesn't twinkle. This is because planets have tiny discs, whereas stars are points of light. Starlight is easily disturbed as it passes through our turbulent atmosphere, which is what causes twinkling.
This year it is at its highest in the sky for 12 years, and won't be as high again for another 12, so make the most of it. To celebrate this, there is a National Astronomy Week from 1–8 March, with events all around the country where you can look at Jupiter and the other wonders of the sky through telescopes. Go to www.astronomyweek.org.uk to find out more.
Rising at about 9.30 pm in the south-east is Mars, though it doesn't make it onto our map. It gets higher in the evening sky as the months progress, and in April will be at its closest to the Earth for two years. To get the best view of it, when it's high enough in the sky, you'll have to wait until around midnight.
Saturn is in the late evening sky at the moment, over in the south-east, and is not high enough to observe well until after midnight.