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Skylights: Winter 2017

Well-here we are again, the clocks have gone back, the nights are getting longer but I fear not much DARKER due to the ever increasing light pollution. Where once the Winter sky was ablaze with bright stars we now see just a pale version with just a handful of the brightest stars that manage to penetrate the all suffocating sky glow which overlays our polluted city. Go outside on a clear night and you ought to see the Milky Way looking like a pale river of light arching above us and the rest of the sky studded with bright stars, but to see that you will have to travel a good few miles from our Observatory site.

In the early evening, we still have the Autumn constellations gradually sinking towards the western horizon. To the south-west, the Great Square of Pegasus is still visible and can be used to find Andromeda and thence to the Great Galaxy M31 just below the familiar "W" shape of Cassiopeiaalmost on the zenith. M31 is huge and is roughly the same angular diameter as the full moon, but with binoculars or a small telescope, all we can see is the very central condensation - looking like an out of focus star.

Below Cassiopeia we can find Perseus.The main star Mirfak lies in a very rich star field well worth a look with binoculars, and sweeping up under Cassiopeia will reveal The Double Cluster in Perseus. Two rich star clusters set against the Milky Way but as ever you need a dark sky to really see them at their best. Below Perseus's knee lies the naked eye star cluster the Pleiades. How many stars can you see? Well, it is also called the Severn Sisters, so a clue there. Actually the cluster contains over 90 stars and the whole cluster is wreathed in pale blue nebulosity. The Pleiades are in the constellation Taurus the Bull and Taurus also contains another naked eye cluster - the Hayades. The Hayades are very close to Taurus's main star Aldebaran.Aldebaran is a first magnitude orange coloured star, representing the Bull's eye in ancient maps.

But there is no doubt that the dominant constellation in the Winter sky is Orion the Mighty Hunter. There is no mistaking Orion due to the three stars in a line representing his belt and the two bright first magnitude stars Betelgeuse coloured orange and Rigel coloured blue/white at top left and bottom right. But it is the little misty patch in his Sword that is of the greatest interest. Through the telescope it appears as a little bluish cloud, that is the M42 Great Orion Nebula. Long exposure imaging shows M42 to be a vast red glowing cloud of hydrogen 1600 light years away. It is a star 'factory' where new stars are forming surrounded by dusty disks of nascent planetery systems. M42 is an object that rewards close observation from the 4 tiny stars at its centre - The Trapezium to the dark obscuring nebula, sometimes called The Fishmouth.

Moving eastwards from Orion, low down in the east, just above the horizon sparkling like a diamond is the first magnitude star Sirius. Sirius is bright because it is comparatively close to us at about 9 light years, it is the brightest star in the whole sky. Sirius also has a claim to fame because it has a tiny White Dwarf companion. Sirius B is a tiny star but is comprised of such dense material that a teaspoon full would weigh hundreds of tons.

The sky map below shows the general appearance of the night sky and beneath it are sections giving more detail about planets, the Moon, comets and others.

If you fancy a more detailed view of the objects and events described on this page our observatory will be open to the public at the appropriate times and weathers (consult the local listings).


Of the planets, Mercury is too close to the Sun to be visible. Venus is in a similar position and close to Mars which is also not visible. Jupiter is now too close to the Sun for observation. Saturn is an evening object just about as low in the south as it gets and is now too close to the Sun. Uranus is at opposition and well placed for observation in Pisces, and Neptune is well placed for observation in Aquarius. Not a good season for planetary observation.

Meteor showers to note: the Leonids max. Nov.21-18 favourable. The Geminids December 14. also favourable this year. [The night sky from
Hampstead: winter 2017]



The Moon is one of the most impressive sights through a telescope. Even in a pair of binoculars it can amaze. The best times to view the Moon is about 3 days before and after first quarter, when the Moon is in the evening sky. Also there's the added bonus that the terminator (line between light and dark) is visible and we get some spectacular views of the lunar surface seen in high relief.

  [Full Moon] [Last quarter] [New Moon] [First quarter]
Phase Full Moon Last quarter New Moon First quarter
Date 04/11 10/11 18/11 26/11
Date 03/12 10/12 18/12 26/12
Date 02/01 29/01 07/01 15/01



Comets are also sometimes visible and can produce incredible public interest, like Comets Halley (1985-86) and Hale-Bopp (1997). In 2005 Comet Machholz was visible and Comet McNaught scudded through the northern sky in January 2007 and was easily accessable to the naked eye. Most recently, Comet Lovejoy graced our skies but is now too distant and feint. Normally none can be seen with the unaided eye at any given time but this can change. To stay abreast of this sign up for our news service.

To prove this point Comet Holmes suddenly brightened in October 2007 by about one million times to be visible to the naked eye in Perseus. Admittedly this is unusual, as comets give more notice with this level of change. Comet Holmes has now faded and lost to sight.


Other animals

Most of the phenomena above are reasonably periodic. But there are also sporadic events which we can see through the Cooke telescope like eclipses or even novae and supernovae (Please). So keep your eyes on the skies or let us do it for you and you might get to look at some rare, beautiful and profound phenomena.


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Last modified: Nov. 02 2017 DGD