The mild nights of late summer are great for stargazing, and one of the most popular constellations, Cygnus, the Swan, is almost overhead. Find it by looking high in the south for a big triangle of stars, called the Summer Triangle. Read more
Stargazers are looking forward to the annual display of meteors (shooting stars) known as the Perseids. Dozens of bright meteors could be visible every hour in mid August – if you know when and where to look. In 2022 the nearly full Moon will reduce the number visible, but the brighter meteors will still be easily visible in clear skies.
Note added 14 August; Perseid meteors are still occurring, so don’t give up yet!
Each year the Earth ploughs through a stream of dust from the tail of comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet itself won’t return to the vicinity of Earth until 2126, but the dust particles from it have spread over a wide band all the way around its orbit. When the Earth encounters this dust stream, the tiny particles burn up in our upper atmosphere, giving rise to what look like shooting stars, known to astronomers as meteors.
When to look for the Perseid meteors
In 2022, the night when maximum numbers occur is Friday to Saturday 12–13 August. But lower numbers can be seen for a week or two on either side of that date, and this is a good time of year for seeing meteors from other streams as well.
You can see the meteors from anywhere that has a good view of the sky, but ideally you need to be away from city lights. The darker the sky, the easier it is to see them. Although many of the meteors are as bright as the brightest stars, it’s easy to miss the fainter ones if your skies are not dark.
The meteors radiate away from the constellation of Perseus, in the north-eastern part of the sky in the evening. This lies just below the well-known W-shaped star pattern of Cassiopeia. But if you want to see the more spectacular meteors, it’s best to look away from that area, so as to see the longest streaks as they dash across the sky. Experts recommend looking about 40º away from this radiant point, and about 50º up in the sky, which is about the mid-point between the ground and the overhead point. So viewing to the north-west, around the Plough, or to the south, above the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn, is a good bet.
The meteor in the video below was photographed on 12 August at 1:20 am BST and the one below that on 13 August at 2:07 BST.
How many will I see?
Sky guides usually quote a figure known as the Zenithal Hourly Rate, or ZHR. This is the number that an attentive observer who hasn’t fallen asleep would see in perfect skies with the radiant point directly overhead. But from the UK the radiant won’t be overhead, and our skies are rarely perfectly dark. So the number will never be as high as the predicted ZHR. This year, ZHR figures of between 80 and 150 have been quoted, but in reality you are more likely to see a fraction of those numbers even in the early morning when the radiant is at its highest.
Although Perseus is in the sky as soon as it gets dark, about 10:30 pm BST, it is very close to the horizon, so that cuts the number down considerably. And this year because the nearly full Moon is around all night, the sky will not be as dark as we would like Even so, observers are expecting to see plentiful numbers. Also bear in mind that meteors are completely random, so they don’t come along in a regular stream. You could go for ten minutes or more without seeing a single one, then there could be two in quick succession. The secret is to be patient and alert all the time – not always easy at 2 am!
For more information on the Perseids and how to observe meteors, visit our Meteor Section site. And if you found this page useful, do think about joining the SPA – we offer fantastic value for money and we really do believe in stargazing for everyone!
Midsummer skies are not ideal for stargazing as it doesn’t get dark until late in the UK. But this is the time of year when spectacular clouds can appear at the edge of space.Read more
Update: 10 am, 16 May
Cloudy conditions prevailed over much of the UK but here are a couple of photos sent to us by Michael Fullerton of Norwich:
Michael reports: I had hoped to go to a viewpoint overlooking the city of Norwich not far from where I live but as there were complete cloud cover at 02.45 I decided it was unlikely that I would see anything. However, the clouds did break and I had a clear view, but had to take the image from the road junction a few yards from my home. Not the greatest view of the south west but lucky to get the image I did given the cloud problem!
Paul Sutherland photographed the start of totality at 04:31 BST from Deal, Kent.
On Monday morning, 16 May, there will be a total lunar eclipse. But viewers in the UK will need really clear skies, because the total phase starts as the Moon is getting low in the sky.
Even so, with the right conditions the sight could be dramatic, with a deep red Moon hanging just over the skyline. During total lunar eclipses, the Moon often goes red because it is illuminated only by light filtering through the rim of the Earth’s atmosphere. If you were standing on the Moon at the time it would be backlit by the Sun, and would appear as a bright red ring of light. So this eclipse could be a sight to lose sleep for, even on Earth!
Where and when to look
The eclipse starts at 2:30 BST when the Moon, at that time quite low in the south, starts to enter the outer edges of the Earth’s shadow, called the penumbra. A few minutes after this it will start to look slightly darker than usual on its eastern side. The shadow will get more and more noticeable until at 3:27 it starts to enter the proper shadow, the umbra, and the eastern edge starts to get very dark. By now the Moon is getting quite low in the south-west. Then an hour later, at 4:28, it’s completely in the Earth’s shadow and the total part of the eclipse has begun.
But the trouble is that this is also about the time that the sky is starting to get really bright, as sunrise is not far away. The time of sunrise varies across the UK, and in the north the Sun rises about 4:50. You might have trouble finding the Moon at all, but bear in mind that eclipses happen when the Sun, Earth and Moon are in line. That means that that the Moon is exactly opposite the Sun in the sky, so look for the Moon in the direction exactly opposite where the Sun will be rising.
This is where a phone app comes in handy, it you can get it to work properly and show things where they are meant to be in the sky. If you are lucky it will show you exactly where the Moon is.
Mid eclipse is at 5:11 BST, but you are only likely to see this to the west of the country, as the Sun will have risen on the eastern side. Good luck with it, if you get up early!
Everyone’s heard of it, and lots of people may think of it as ‘their’ constellation – Gemini, the Twins. It’s famous because it’s in the Zodiac, the path in the sky taken by the planets and indeed the Sun and Moon. In March 2022 there are no planets in Gemini, so its pattern of stars shows up clearly.Read more
The CPRE’s annual Star Count in the UK is under way and you have until Sunday 6 March to join in! Simply look at the constellation of Orion on a clear night and count the number of stars you can see within the rectangle of its four corner stars you see in the picture here.
Don’t count the four corner stars themselves, but just those within that rectangle, including the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt.
Here’s a tip: it’s easier to see faint stars if you don’t look directly at them! This is because your centre of vision is not the most sensitive part. But you can still see the stars quite clearly even if you are looking slightly away from them, a technique that astronomers call ‘averted vision’.
When you’ve counted, go to the CPRE’s Star Count website: https://www.cpre.org.uk/starcount. You’ll be asked to sign in and give your results. These will then help the CPRE to discover how Britain’s skies are changing – is it getting more difficult to see faint stars, or are the efforts to keep our skies dark working?
Anyone in the UK can take part, and results from those in city areas are just as welcome as from those in dark country sites.
To find out more about the fascinating constellation of Orion, look at our web story about the constellation.
What’s the best-known constellation? The Plough (or Big Dipper)*? The Southern Cross? Actually, it has to be Orion, because unlike the other two it’s visible the whole world over, it’s very easily recognised and it has more bright stars than any other star pattern.Read more
The International Space Station is making a spectacular series of evening passes over the UK, continuing until the first week in February. You can view it from your back garden as long as you have a good view of the sky, so there’s no need to travel anywhere to see it.Read more
A kilometre-wide asteroid is due to pass less than 2 million km Earth at 21:30 this evening (18 January 2022). The object will be visible using amateur telescopes and will move noticeably through the field of view, offering a rare opportunity to witness such an event.Read more
The planet Mercury is definitely mercurial. It’s as hard to catch as quicksilver. But the closest planet to the Sun is in the evening sky right now, in the south-west just after sunset, so early January 2022 is a good time to look for it. Mercury is at its farthest from the Sun on 7 January, but it’s still around for a few days after that date.
You’ll need a good clear sky and a low horizon to see it, and because the sky is still bright at that time you’ll have to search carefully. Just as you are about to give up you will probably spot it as a starlike point, and once you’ve seen it it becomes easier to find it again. Saturn is also appearing in the evening sky in the same direction, although quite a lot fainter, so you may spot that as well. Binoculars would definitely help you to find both planets.
Where to look
Look to the south-west about 40 minutes after sunset or a bit later, in the brightest part of the twilight sky where the Sun has set. It’s much closer to the horizon and to the right of Jupiter, which is the bright planet in the south-west at the moment. The time of sunset depends on where you live in the UK, varying from about 16:10 in the London area to 15:40 in northern Scotland. But don’t leave it too long – there’s only a window of opportunity about 20 minutes long in which to view it.
Mercury is moving closer to the Sun as seen in the sky evening by evening, and will become too low to be seen easily by about 16 January. The next opportunity to view it in the evening sky will be at the end of April.
If you have a phone app that shows the stars, and knows which way it’s pointing, this is the time to use it! It will show you exactly which direction to look in, and how high Mercury is above the horizon. But even then, it won’t be all that easy.