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Sky Notes for November 2013 with James Abbott #stargazing

The Taurid meteors are active throughout November with the best chances of seeing them being in the first half of the month. The Taurids are associated with Comet Encke, which was the second comet to be numbered after the much more famous Comet Halley.

The Taurids are not one of the more active showers, but they can be seen at a reasonable time of the evening and are noticeably slow and often coloured. As their name suggests they originate from Taurus which is rising in the East throughout the evenings of early November, reaching an altitude of about 30 degrees by 9pm GMT. This year the chances of seeing Taurids are boosted by the Moon being New on November 3rd so moonlight will not interfere at least for the first week of the month.

Image: Astrocal

That New Moon will pass in front of the Sun causing a solar eclipse on November 3rd but the edge of the shadow misses the UK. From Southern Europe there will be a partial eclipse.

Jupiter continues to improve through November and by the last week of the month is over 30 degrees in altitude in the East by 11pm GMT and a brilliant mag -2.6. On the night of the 21st/22nd the waning gibbous Moon is close by. Once the Moon is out of the evening sky at the end of November all of the bright winter constellations will be observable in a dark sky and at a reasonable hour with Sirius rising in the South East after 10pm.


Full Moon is on November 17th, now shining down from nearly 60 degrees in altitude when in the South.

Venus remains rather elusive due to its large Southerly declination but is visible if the skies are clear, low down in the South West in evening twilight throughout the month. On the 6th the young crescent Moon will be nearby.

Speculation is mounting about Comet ISON (2012 S1), which some, probably unwisely, have predicted could be the “Comet of the Century”. Such predictions about comets have come to grief many times previously. It is possible that it may be bright enough to see in binoculars before dawn in the middle of November low down in the South East. Currently though it is only brightening slowly and at best could become a fairly bright object visible to the unaided eye in early to mid December following a very close swing around the Sun at the end of November.

The comet nucleus is believed to be about 2km across. It will pass within one solar diameter of the surface of the Sun – resulting in a roasting which will rapidly release gas and dust from the nucleus as its ices boil off into space – and hopefully to form prominent tails.

For early risers November will be a bumper month for comets. As well as ISON we have three other comets in range of binoculars. The best placed is Comet Lovejoy (2013 R1), which will be high enough to observe from about 1am in the East. 2P/Enke is low pre dawn, also in the East, with LINEAR (2012 X1) in the same area of the sky near Arcturus. 2012 X1 has undergone an outburst similar to that seen in 17P/Holmes in 2007. Nick James secured these images from Chelmsford:

 For full details of this autumn’s comets visit


James Abbott is an astronomer, NEAS member and CfDS Regional Information Officer.

You can download a free map of the evening sky here:


Sky Notes for August 2013 with James Abbott #stargazing

The annual Perseid meteor shower reaches maximum activity on August 12th at 5pm BST. So both the pre-dawn period on the 12th and the night of 12th/13th could see the highest activity. This year circumstances are very favourable as the young Moon will have set soon after 10pm BST on the 12th, leaving the rest of the night Moon free.


The shower radiant climbs higher in the sky as the night progresses. By 11pm BST the radiant, below Cassiopeia, is about 40 degrees up in the North East. If it is clear then away from streetlights it should be possible to see a meteor on average about once a minute at peak although for several nights either side of maximum it is worth observing. What often happens is that several come along in quick succession, then a gap before the next burst.

Useful dark sky observing periods return this month free from the summer twilight. By the end of the month astronomical twilight ends by 10pm BST.

Saturn is still visible in the evening twilight in the West but by months end is getting low. A young crescent Moon will be near the ringed planet on the 12th. A superb image was recently captured by the Cassini probe looking back at Earth with the benefit of the Sun being eclipsed by Saturn. Although less spectacular than our view of Saturn, the pale blue colour of our little island in space is striking, with the Moon alongside.


Full Moon this month is on the night of the 20th/21st, reaching 30 degrees in altitude when due South.

Through August the early autumn constellations become more prominent in the East, including Pegasus and Andromeda. From dark sites it is just possible to see the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) with the unaided eye. Averted vision can help (looking just to the side of the target).

M31 is the most distant object readily visible without optical aid, over 2 million light years away. Like our own Milky Way galaxy, Andromeda is a “grand-design” spiral. In binoculars it appears as a large elliptical hazy patch. With a telescope it is possible to see more detail and structure, including some of the many dwarf galaxies that orbit around it.

Image: Adam Evans

A recent paper suggests that as well as our future predicted interaction with our “sister” galaxy, we have actually been in a gravitational dance with M31 for billions of years with a previous ancient glancing collision billions of years ago evidenced by the polar rings that both galaxies have. The paper also raises the stakes on the Dark Matter V MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics) debate.

James Abbott is an astronomer, NEAS member and CfDS Regional Information Officer.

You can download a free map of the evening sky here:

Sky Notes for July 2012, with James Abbott #stargazing

Summer twilight lasts through most of July although so far this summer clear skies have been at a premium so there have only been a few chances to observe the deep blue midnight sky to the North. In the gaps in the weather, noctilucent clouds have been observed to be active with several displays seen from Essex.

Image by James Abbott and Freddie Abbott

Image by James Abbott and Freddie Abbott

 By the last week of the month the summer twilight period is coming to an end and it is fully dark again in the small hours.

Full Moon is on the night of July 3rd/4th, so the best dark skies for will be from about the 9th July until the last few days of the month when the Moon is once again waxing.

Looking East in mid to late July, the summer constellations are high up with the brilliant blue/white Vega almost overhead. Away from streetlights the Milky Way should be fairly easy to see, stretching from high in the East down to the South. By midnight its a case of “three seasons in a night” as the autumn constellations of Pegasus and Perseus are rising in the East, with the bright yellowish star Capella, a star associated with winter, low in the North.

Summer Triangle

The Summer Triangle

A variety of meteor showers are active through July and August so that on any clear Moonless night it should be possible to see a few meteors even in a watch of half an hour. Almost all of these regular annual showers are the product of comets leaving trails of dust behind which the Earth then passes through at the same point in our orbit each year. So to see a meteor is usually to see a tiny fragment of a comet burning up high in our atmosphere. Regular showers in July originate from radiants in Cygnus, Capricornus, Aquarius and by late July the most famous shower is becoming active, the Perseids. But most of these summer showers are individually weak, so working out which shower an apparently lone meteor is a member of, or if it is a sporadic meteor, can be tricky from visual observations alone. Tracing the track back across the sky can point to the possible source constellation, but an additional check is the velocity across the sky. Alpha Capricornids for example can flare brightly and are noticeably slow, with an entry velocity of only 25km/sec, which is less than half that of Perseids.

Mars and Saturn continue to get closer in the sky as the month progresses and by the end of July are just 8 degrees apart, and along with the star Spica, will make up a triangle of 3 objects all of similar brightness. However, this will be low in the West soon after dusk. The young Moon will pass about 5 degrees below Mars on the evening of the 24th.

Lunar occultation of Jupiter

Lunar occultation of Jupiter

In the early hours of the 15th July, Jupiter will be occulted by the waning crescent Moon. With Essex close to the southern graze line, observers in mid-Essex will see Jupiter just covered by the Northern limb of the Moon just after 3am BST. To add to the spectacle, all 4 Galilean moons will also be occulted. The whole event only lasts for about 30 minutes, so observers with telescopes will need to be set up ready by 2.45am BST. To add to the attraction, Venus will be just 6 degrees from Jupiter and the Moon. A good clear North Eastern horizon will be needed as the altitude of Jupiter is just 10 degrees and Venus only 4 degrees at 3am BST.

James Abbott is an astronomer, NEAS member and CfDS Regional Information Officer.

You can download a free map of the evening sky here:

Sky Notes for April 2012, with James Abbott

Daylight continues to increase rapidly throughout April and by the end of the month evening twilight does not fully end until nearly 11pm BST.

Jupiter and Venus continue to separate after their close encounter in March. Jupiter becomes increasingly lost in the evening twilight as the month progresses, but Venus remains well placed as a brilliant object in the West as it gets dark. Venus will be fairly close to the young Moon on the evenings of the 24th and 25th. As our sister planet begins to swing in between the Earth and Sun on its faster orbit, so the phase decreases. Venus starts the month with a phase of just under 50%, but ends it at less than 30%, with the diameter steadily increasing as it gets closer to us. At its very closest, Venus can just exceed 1 arc minute in diameter, larger than Jupiter, but much more difficult – and dangerous – to observe near the Sun.

Saturn, Spica and the Moon at 9pm on 6th April

Saturn, Spica and the Moon at 9pm on 6th April

Lower in the sky in the South East at the same time will be another pair of bright objects about 5 degrees apart, Saturn and the star Spica. The low April Full Moon will be close to the pair on the night of 6th/7th April.

Mars is now slowly fading but remains well placed for observation. In mid-month Mars is in the South around 10pm BST, about 5 degrees to the left of Regulus, the brightest star in Leo.



The Lyrid meteor shower peaks in the early hours of the 22nd April and this year there will be no interference from the Moon. The shower is active over about a week but the best time to look will probably be late evening on the 21st and then on after midnight.

At 11pm on the 21st, the shower radiant will be about 30 degrees up in the North East, not far from the brilliant star Vega. Its best to look either side of the radiant rather than straight at it to stand a chance of catching sight of fast moving meteors.

The Lyrids are not usually the most active of showers but have produced outbursts in the past. But even if 2012 is a normal return, a watch of even half an hour near maximum should catch a few. Occasional bright Lyrids can leave luminous “trains” in the sky which can last for several seconds or longer.

James Abbott is an astronomer, NEAS member and CfDS Regional Information Officer.

You can download a free map of the evening sky here:

Three Nights in One Minute – Meteorwatch

Three nights of observing the sky for the Geminids meteorwatch, condensed into ~1 minute.

Moonwatch & Meteorwatch

As part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, Autumn Moonwatch (and Meteorwatch) will take place from 24th October to the 1st November.

There will also be a Twitter Moonwatch on the evenings of the 26th & 27th October), where the idea is to communicate with people all over the UK while you observe the Moon.  To take part in this, you will need to sign up to Twitter (for free) and the follow @astronomy2009uk.

During Twitter Moonwatch various people around the country will be live-tweeting images of the Moon, planets and other astronomical objects. At the same time astronomers from Newbury AS (and many others) will be online to answer any questions you might have about the images being tweeted, and about astronomy in general.

This Moonwatch will be a special one, as Faulkes Telescope Network of professional telescopes will also be taking part and taking images with their 2-metre telescope situated in New South Wales, Australia.

To find out more, visit

Delta Aquarids

This year’s Delta Aquarid meteor shower is building toward its peak on the 29th/30th July.

The Southern Delta Aquarids are a meteor shower visible from mid July to mid August each year with peak activity on or around 29th July. The shower originated from the breakup of what are now the Marsden and Kracht Sungrazing comets. Their name is due to the shower radiant being located near the star Delta Aquarius.


The Delta Aquarids are best viewed in the pre-dawn hours, away from the glow of street-lights. The radiant is above the southern horizon for us Northern Hemisphere viewers and so the meteors tend to fan out in all compass points – east, north and west.

Detailed observing information and history can be found here.

Eta Aquarids 2009

METEOR SHOWER: Earth is entering a stream of dusty debris from Halley’s Comet, the source of the annual eta Aquarid meteor shower. Forecasters expect the shower to peak on Wednesday 6th May, with as many as 20-30 per hour predicted in the UK.  The best time to look is during the dark hour before local sunrise on Wednesday morning.

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