An early morning lunar eclipse

An early morning lunar eclipse

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 Fullerton took these photos with a Panasonic HDC-SD60 camcorder using its zoom lens.

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.

The start of totality in a brightening sky, photographed by Paul Sutherland using a Fujifilm X-T10 camera with 230 mm lens.

Original story:

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!

A previous total lunar eclipse, when the circumstances were similar to this week’s event. Credit Robin Scagell/Galaxy

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.

Stages of the eclipse as the Moon passes into Earth’s shadow, as seen from the centre of the UK. The Moon is the yellow disc, and the grey circles mark the Earth’s shadow, which is normally invisible.

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!

The great Star Count

The great Star Count

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: 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.

Catch a glimpse of Mercury

Catch a glimpse of Mercury

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.

The view about 45 minutes after sunset on 9 January 2022 as shown by the free astronomy software Stellarium, which you can also download for your phone.

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.

Viewing tip

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.

Good year for January meteors

Good year for January meteors

For astronomers, New Year fireworks come in the form of the Quadrantid meteors. Each year around 3–4 January one of the best meteor showers of the year occurs, and 2022 promises to be a good year, weather permitting.

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A Quadrantid meteor photographed in January 2020 by Paul Sutherland from Walmer, Kent

How many?

You may hear that ‘up to’ 120 meteors an hour are expected, and that is the official ‘zenithal hourly rate’. But hold on – that’s the technical maximum that you might see under ideal conditions. Although the 2022 appearance is likely to be good, as the Moon won’t be in the sky (it’s nearly new Moon), very rarely do you get perfect conditions. A bit of light pollution will wipe out many of the fainter ones, and the rates increase after midnight as the radiant – the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to radiate – rises higher in the sky. With clear skies and in a country area you could see 50–60 an hour at this time.

The Quadrantid meteors have a quite narrow peak of activity, which may occur about 9 pm UK time, when the radiant is at its lowest as seen from the UK, but the exact timing is uncertain. Meteor observers will be out in force, given clear skies.

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The radiant of the Quadrantid meteors lies in the northern sky not far from the well-known pattern of The Plough or Big Dipper.

Where to look

Although the radiant is in the north-eastern sky, meteor observers find that the best place to look is in mid sky about 45 degrees away from the radiant itself. So look towards the north or east for the best chance of seeing meteors, although any direction will do if these directions are not available to you. There is no particular area of the UK that will see more meteors, but try to get away from city and suburban areas if you can.

Look at the SPA’s Meteor Section website for more information about the Quadrantids and how to observe them.