Brightening our skies in November and December

As we move into the long and dark nights of December 2019, there are two features of the sky to penetrate the gloom – the International Space Station and the planet Venus.

The International Space Station is making a spectacular series of evening passes over the UK, continuing until the second week in December.

ISS trail
Trail of International Space Station through the sky. The trail fades as it moves towards the east as the station moves into the Earth’s shadow.
Photo: Robin Scagell

There’s no mistaking the International Space Station (ISS) when it glides silently through our skies. It is often brighter than any celestial object at night other than the Moon, and moves as swiftly as a nearby aircraft, but without any accompanying flashing lights or noise. Yet it’s at least 412 km above your head, and as you watch the station rapidly passes over the rest of Europe, travelling at around 460 km every minute.

A typical pass lasts about 10 minutes, although it is only easily visible for about six minutes. It always moves from the west side of the sky to the east, although its exact track depends on where you are viewing from and the stage of its orbit. It can pass directly over southern England, and even from the north of Scotland you can still view it easily. Some passes travel directly overhead as seen from the south of the country.

Quite often the Station fades as you view it, as it passes into the Earth’s shadow. From the astronauts’ point of view, sunset has arrived, which is repeated every 90 minutes.

This is a great opportunity for photography, and also for showing off your predictive powers to your friends and family. To find out how to get predictions for your own location go to our help page: https://www.popastro.com/main_spa1/predicting-the-iss-and-other-satellites/. This explains how to use the prediction tables and get a map of the sky showing its track against the starry background.

In the last week of December 2019 and the first week of 2020 the ISS is visible in the early morning sky.

Venus is our Christmas Star

Venus 27-11-19
Venus and Jupiter are low down in the south-western sky as seen from the UK on 27 November 2019. Image from Stellarium, but don’t expect to see leaves on the trees!

The planet Venus is making its way into the evening sky and is going to become a spectacular evening star throughout the spring of 2020. At the end of November and beginning of December it is quite low in the south-western sky just after sunset, though getting higher every night. To begin with you’ll need a good low horizon in that direction, but by the end of December it’s already about 14º altitude at the end of civil twilight and easy to spot as the brightest object in the twilight.

It was close to Jupiter on 24 November, and is the same height above the horizon as Jupiter on 27 November. Venus is by far the brighter of the two. Then on 11 December it’s close to Saturn, and on 28 and 29 December the crescent Moon is nearby, providing two good chances to try out that new camera you got for Christmas!