Welcome to the SPA’s Winter Skywatch!

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We may not be able to travel just now, due to coronavirus lockdown, but instead you can tour the night sky with the SPA’s Winter Skywatch.

We’ve launched a campaign to get families or individuals to look up and discover the delights of the stars and planets in our UK skies – just as long as it’s not snowing of course!

First of all, you’ll need to download our free Winter Skywatch guide which we’ve produced to help you get to know the stars in the winter skies. Also watch the video recorded by Robin Scagell under the winter stars, showing you Orion, the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades cluster, the Beehive cluster and more.

You’ll also find links to useful charts and other information to help you find the astronomical objects mentioned in our guide. And take a look at the SPA Forum, where we’ve added a Skywatch topic where you can discuss the sights you’ve seen with other participants, and our friendly members.

We haven’t forgotten the little ones in your family. You’ll find downloadable pictures for kids (or even grown-ups) to colour in of the constellations Orion the Hunter, and Leo the Lion, plus the planet Mars.

We hope that you, or someone in your family, will get hooked on stargazing, and come and join us as a member of the Society for Popular Astronomy.

You can let us know how you are getting on with Winter Skywatch, and what you’ve seen, on our Forum. (You will need to register first to post).

First of all . . . keep warm!

The stars are at their best in winter, when nights are long and you can being skywatching early in the evening. But don’t expect any balmy nights! Remember this is Winter Skywatch, and the clue’s in the name. Expect temperatures to drop, possibly to freezing or below.

There’s nothing more likely to put you off going outside to look at the night sky than being cold. So make sure you are well wrapped up in gear that will keep you warm. Wear several layers to help keep your body heat in, plus warm boots and a woolly or thermal hat. Don’t forget to choose some good boots and thick socks so that you don’t suffer frozen feet.

Be careful not to fall over anything if you are outside in the dark. But try not to use a torch too much as it can take a while for your eyes to adjust to the darkness again and see the sky at its best.

Take your own photo of the stars!

Did you realise that you can take photos of the stars quite easily with an ordinary camera, and even with many mobile phones nowadays! The secret is to take a short time exposure, but you’ll need to keep the camera steady. We have our own special SPA guide to photographing star trails.

Follow the waxing Moon

The SPA’s Winter Skywatch is being launched just after New Moon in February, when the Moon is to close to the Sun in the sky to be seen, and with the side facing Earth in shadow. But over the next few nights it will appear as a beautiful crescent in the evening sky, which grows in size from night to night until it resembles a half-moon (technically known as First Quarter) on 19 February.

When the Moon is a narrow crescent, look to check whether you can see the rest of the Moon too, shining due to sunlight reflecting onto it from the Earth. This phenomenon is called Earthshine, and in folklore it was known as “the young Moon in the old Moon’s arms”.

Visit our special page to show how the Moon will look tonight. It will be updated daily during the Winter Skywatch event.

You can read more about “Getting to know the Moon” on our archived Moonwatch pages.

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A closer look at Orion

Our Winter Skywatch highlights Orion as one of the finest constellations that you can see to the south as soon as the sky gets dark. Here are a couple of photos of Orion taken by SPA vice-president Robin Scagell from his home in Flackwell Heath, Bucks.

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A wide-angle view of Orion in the trees by Robin Scagell, taken from Flackwell Heath, Bucks.
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A close-up view of Orion by Robin Scagell, taken from Flackwell Heath, Bucks.
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Orion and two star clusters in Taurus, the Pleiades, top right, and the V-shaped Hyades between them, with bright star Aldebaran marking one end of the V.
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This lovely photo of the Orion Nebula, M42, was taken by Stuart Atkinson from Kendal Cumbria. He combined 10 30-second exposures taken with a Canon 700D DSLR and 135mm lens on an iOptron tracker
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Mars red colour shows clearly in this image of the planet approaching the Pleiades star cluster, taken by Stuart Atkinson from Kendal, Cumbria