We usher in 2023 with the planets Venus and Mercury very close to each other low in the west after sunset. On a crisp clear evening it should look beautiful. Venus will be very bright.
Saturn is sinking lower into the west through January, but Jupiter is still well placed early evening. Mars remains bright and red and due south at 9pm-ish. However, it is getting smaller and dimmer as the Earth races away in its orbit, leaving the red planet in the rear view mirror.
Another close encounter comes as Saturn and Venus move within a mere two degrees of each other between 21 and 24 January. Look for them very low in the west from 5.20pm. But hurry – they will set quickly.
The first of the year’s decent meteor showers is the Lyrids, peaking on the night of the 22 and 23 April. The moon sets just before midnight and then it’s darkness – best for spotting meteors. This is not a prolific shower so don’t expect fireworks. But it’s still worth giving it a try. Look high in the south east, later is better and use your naked eye. Dark areas favoured. You might spot the odd shooting star in the days before and after the peak.
By May the planet Venus will be at its dazzling best. It is the brightest object in the night sky apart from the moon and shines brightly until setting around midnight. It’s unmistakable. This is our sister planet, but shrouded in a thick smog. Few markings in its atmosphere can be gleaned even with big telescopes. In binoculars it will appear as a small white disc.
From late May until August the sky never gets properly dark, but there is slight compensation as this is Noctilucent Cloud season. These are the highest clouds that can form in the Earth’s atmosphere and made of cosmic dust and icy particles. They really do glow in the night! It’s caused by the geometry of the clouds and the sun, combined with our mid-northern latitude. On a clear night look north about an hour after sunset or before sunrise. Look for electric blue wisps. They are a great target for photography and a five second exposure will do the trick. Good mobile phones will also capture them, but some sort of stand or tripod will be best.
We get dark skies back across the UK in August and that’s well-timed because the Milky Way will be looking at its best. This river of light can be seen from dark areas and is the edge-on view we get of our very own spiral galaxy. Look directly overhead at midnight. You are searching for a relatively narrow hazy glow (actually the accumulated light of millions of distant stars). Darker the sky, the better it looks.
A key date for your diary is the night of 12 and 13 August – the climax of the Perseid meteor shower. It’s a cracker and over recent years it has produced some lovely shooting stars. The moon is also absent – which is great. The advice is the same for all meteor showers: look high in the south east, later is better and use your naked eye. Head to dark country areas for the best views, but you will still see brighter ones from urban areas (we saw six in an hour from an industrial town last year!). You will also see them in the days before and after the peak.
Hoorah! During August we will also have a Blue Moon! The month sees two full moons so the second one is designated “blue” What’s more both are Supermoons when our nearest neighbour is a tad larger than normal because its a wee bit closer to the Earth.
The magnificent ringed planet – Saturn- is at its closest to the Earth on 27 August and visible all night. It looks like a bright yellow star and will be due south about midnight. To see the rings you will need a telescope (a small one will do) and use about 30x magnification. If you have never seen them they will blow your socks off. It’s worth noting that the rings are slowly closing up (becoming less obvious) and by 2025 they will be tough to see as they will appear edge on. Then they will gradually become more prominent again. It’s all caused by a slight tilt in planetary orbits. But the good news is that the planet is slowly climbing higher in the sky for those at mid-northern latitudes after a few years very low down. That should mean sharper views on good nights.
On 3 November the giant planet Jupiter will be at its closest to Earth and visible all night long (in the jargon this is called an opposition). Even a small telescope will reveal detail in Jupiter’s cloud bands, plus up to four of its moons. It is also very high in the sky so that makes this a great opportunity to admire this gas world. It shines much brighter than any star so you should be able to track it down. Remember Jupiter will also be visible in the months before and after this date.
Three meteor showers close out the year. The wonderful Orionids (21/22 October), Leonids (17 November) and best of all the Geminids, which reaches its climax on 14 December. The moon will be largely absent for all three which makes this year a vintage one for shooting stars. The meteors themselves are caused by tiny particles left behind by comets travelling at colossal speeds and burning up in the atmosphere. The Orionids shower is actually caused by dust shed from Comet Halley. The Geminids are a bit unusual as its source is an asteroid called Phaethon. But who cares – they are fantastic!