- Saturn is prominent in the sky through much of Autumn. Over recent years the ringed world has been very low in the sky for UK observers, where the atmosphere is turbulent and views less sharp. But it is starting to climb a little higher each year which is good news. Look south after 9pm. A telescope will show you the fantastic rings plus (at least) one of its many moons, Titan, bathed in a thick atmosphere and with lakes of liquid methane. Meanwhile the solar system’s biggest planet, Jupiter, is even more prominent and just to the left (east) of Saturn. Again it has been rather low in the sky at mid northern latitudes, but it is getting higher and more rewarding to observe. A good pair of binoculars should allow you to see Jupiter’s four largest moons. Telescopes will reveal subtle banding on the planet and even blue festoons and the Great Red Spot (a storm system at least 400 years old!) on good nights with larger instruments.
- Autumn sees the return of truly dark skies for mid northern latitudes and is the ideal time to view the Milky Way, which is directly overhead after dusk. Choose a moonless night to get the best view. You will need to escape light pollution so country areas are best. Why does it glow? It’s the combined light of millions of fainter stars in the disc of our galaxy – use binoculars and you will see what I mean.
- In mid-September Neptune reached its closest approach to Earth this year and is well placed for viewing for some months more. Mind you, it’s still over 2.6 billion miles away and only visible in binoculars and telescopes if you know where to look. It looks like a green star and is worth searching out as so few people get to see it. A great online resource to generate a map showing exactly where it is and other planets can be found at https://stellarium-web.org/ In fact all four of the solar system’s gas giants are on view. Uranus is further east – it too appears green and is brighter than Neptune, but you will still need at least binoculars. Stars come in a various colours (white, blue, yellow and red), but none are green, so that gives you a clue. Meanwhile over to the west, Jupiter and Saturn are prominent.
- The wonderful Orionids meteor shower peaks on 21 October. These shooting stars are caused by bits of dust left behind by Comet Halley. Unfortunately there’s also a full moon and its glare will block out fainter meteors, which will radiate from the constellation of Orion. Use your naked eye.
- The final two major meteor showers of 2021 are the Leonids on 17 November and the much more promising Geminids on 13 December. For the latter you can expect to see shooting stars anytime between 7 and 17 December. The waxing gibbous moon will block out most of the fainter meteors during the peak, but this is such a rich shower it’s worth having a good look. View high in the south east and use your naked eye.
Milky Way captured over Dalby Forest, North York Moors. Credit Rob Ince.