Here are five fantastic things you should be able to see with the naked eye in the sky overhead through the winter months from the UK, given a nice clear sky, preferably free of light pollution:
1. The Andromeda Galaxy
2.4 million light years away, this is the furthest object you will be able to see with no equipment other than your eyes. Just like our own galaxy, the Milky Way, Andromeda is a spiral galaxy and is estimated to contain a staggering 1 trillion (10^12) stars! It is on a collision course with the Milky Way though… in 2.5billion years it’s due to make impact – a common occurrence for galaxies in the same local group.
To find it, look for the ‘W’ of the constellation of Cassiopeia in the hazy light of the Milky Way, and then use the ‘v’ to point to a ‘smudge’ almost directly overhead at around midnight.
2. The Great Square of Pegasus
This is an easy asterism to spot and forms the body of the constellation of the winged horse, Pegasus. From around midnight in the UK, look due South to see the square which is tipped up on it’s side and appears almost diamond-like.
Starting from the top (closest to overhead) and moving clockwise you’ll see the red giant Scheat (the shin), Markab (the shoulder), Algenib (the side), and Alpheratz (the horse); these Arabic names referring to Pegasus and his parts.
The red eye of the bull, Aldebaran, is a red giant star about 38times the diameter of our Sun that looks like it is in the Hyades star cluster, but it is not. It simply lies along the same line of sight, and is between us and the Hyades open cluster. In Arabic, Aldebaran means the follower, referring to the way it follows the Pleiades star cluster (see below).
The V-shape of Taurus the bull’s head is an open cluster of stars that all formed out of the same gas cloud millions of years ago. This group is very close to us, only 150 light years away, and is known as the Hyades (pronounced “high-ah-deez”)
You can see the orange-reddish glow of Aldebaran, looking South East at midnight this October from the UK.
4. The Seven Sisters
Above the back of Taurus the Bull is the star cluster known as the Seven Sisters, or the Pleiades (pronounced “ply-ah-deez”). This is another open cluster of stars that all formed about 100 million years ago out of the same gas cloud.
They are called the Seven Sisters because on a clear night, if you have good eyesight, you can see seven of them, although there may be more than 1,400 stars in the cluster! They are mere teenagers at about 100million years old compared to our Sun, which is 4.5billion years old.
5. Orion the Hunter
One of the most recognisable and largest constellations in the winter night sky, you’ll find the Hunter starting to rise in the East in the evening at this time of year in the northern hemisphere. It’s also one of the richest constellations in terms of variety of objects that are visible to the naked eye.
Perhaps the easiest way to spot Orion is from the asterism that makes his starry belt – the stars Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka.
Betelgeuse is the red supergiant that forms Orion’s right shoulder. It’s so big, if it were at the centre of our solar system it’s diameter would extend to between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, totally engulfing Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.
The blue-white star Rigel, the 6th brightest star in the sky is Orion’s left knee.
Around October 21st, you might be lucky enough to see the annual Orionids meteor shower peak when there are around 10 to 20 meteors per hour radiating from the area around Orion’s left shoulder. These pieces of space dust are remnants of Halley’s Comet which last passed through the inner solar system in 1986.
One of the many deep sky objects you can see with the naked eye in this constellation is the Orion Nebula (M42) appearing to hang from his belt. This swirling cloud of stars, luminous gas and dust is estimated to be around 24 light years across and one of the brightest visible nebulae.
Derek’s Tips for Stargazing
• Sit in a dimly lit room for a good 10 to 15minutes before going out to look into the sky. This allows your eyes to grow accustom to low light and you’ll see the night sky objects much better.
• Try to avoid using a torch as this will dazzle you. If you have to, cover a white torch with a red filter to find your way around safely.
• You should be able to see all these objects with just your eyes, but if you have binoculars or a telescope you’ll see them in much greater detail.
• Always wrap up warm when looking at the sky at night, especially in the winter. It’s better to put on more layers, that you can remove if you are too hot, than to go out with too few and be cold. Take a hot drink in a flask, a snack and some company cause it’s always better to share in the wonder!