Gary Fildes' Top 10 Astronomy Targets to Spot From Your Back Garden.
If you are one of the millions of people who live in the many light polluted areas of the UK (and sadly most large towns and cities do cause light pollution), then you would be forgiven for thinking that looking up into the night sky isn’t really worth it. Yes, it’s true that dark sky sites such as the remote Kielder forests of Northumberland where I work at our observatory offer the greatest stargazing nights in the country. On a good night we can even see the Northern Lights.
But wherever you live, there is still much that can be seen from the comfort of your own back garden. My passion for astronomy began at home. I was a bricklayer by trade until I followed my true passion for the stars many years later. I built an observatory, and since then I’ve been helping others discover the joys of stargazing, from whatever background they’re from. You don’t need a degree to look up.
Below are my ‘Top 10’ objects and tips. You can actually hunt out some real treasures, some with the naked eye, and others with a pair of binoculars or a telescope. I have been observing many of these constellations for decades now, wherever I am on my travels. Whether you’re a beginner of an expert, I hope you can enjoy them too.
1) The Plough. An asterism in the constellation of Ursa Major, the Plough is shaped like a saucepan in section with 7 stars forming the famous shape. Look north to find it, and use the end two stars to point towards the North Star or Polaris.
2) The Pleiades. Commonly known as the seven sisters, this is actually a cluster of around 200 stars, the brightest of which is easily discernable with the naked eye, forming a tight cluster that represents the heart of the bull in the constellation Taurus.
3) The Moon. Often overlooked but what a sight through binoculars or a telescope. Trace your journey through the lunar landscape; the best time to observe is during the half phase. Tip: if you are using a telescope, try using your iPhone to take a picture through the telescope’s lens. You’ll be amazed at the quality.
4) Alcor and Mizar. A double star system in the handle of the plough, this is the second star in from the tip of the handle. Through a telescope you may even be able to resolve another close binary member to Mizar.
5) Albireo. Representing the head of the swan in Cygnus, this is a real gem. This is actually 2 stars, one orange and one blue.
7) The Andromeda galaxy. Our closest neighbour in the universe, Andromeda is located some 2.3 million light years away. This galaxy is 25% bigger than our Milky Way, with over 1 trillion stars embedded in its vast confines. Find Cassiopeia and use the arrow stars to point to Mirach, a yellow star, and then hop 2 more stars north. A fuzzy patch of light awaits the determined stargazer.
8) The Planets. From Venus to the ringed planet Saturn. The interesting thing is you do not need dark skies to see the bright planets. You can enjoy them in London at Tower Bridge if you like! They are best viewed through a telescope, and are without doubt some of the most rewarding sights you will see. Jupiter and Venus are best at this time of year. You need to be far south to glimpse Saturn. However, in the long summer nights Saturn climbs to around 15 degrees above the horizon, enough to glimpse the rings.
9) The ISS, the International Space Station. Check out apps like ‘Heavens Above, feed in your post code and the app will tell you when this huge space station will fly overhead. This is a lot of fun to track down, and easy to do. The brave can try to photograph it through a telescope, good luck!
10) Finally, I recommend just sitting down in your garden, looking up and having a think. What’s really out there? Space could be infinite in its volume, we just don’t know yet. It’s a vast, thrilling universe out there and we are all part of it.
Enjoy your stargazing!
Born in Sunderland, Gary Fildes is the founder and lead astronomer of Kielder observatory, located in the forests of Northumberland. He is the author of An Astronomer's Tale: A Bricklayer's Guide to the Galaxy, available in PB now.