Sarah Cruddas, author of Look Up: Our story with the stars, tells us what to look out for in our night skies this autumn.
Being minimally affected by light pollution, Cornwall is one of my favourite places to look up at the night sky. It is also from here that I was lucky enough to see the total solar eclipse as a teenager in 1999.
As summer turns to autumn and the nights get longer, but the weather is still pleasant, now is the perfect time to look up and wonder at the night sky. You can see an amazing number of things without needing any special equipment.
A few of the easiest things to spot are some of the other planets in our solar system. If you’re not sure how to distinguish stars from planets, here’s a fun fact: stars twinkle, but planets do not. This is because stars are really far away, so the light they omit appears as a single point from Earth, and such a narrow point of light can very easily be distorted by our atmosphere. Whereas planets – far smaller on a cosmic scale – are much closer to Earth, so the light being reflected from them does not get distorted by our atmosphere.
After sunset this autumn in the south or south east, you will be able to see the gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn, which will appear very low on the horizon. Saturn is the fainter of the two and is located to the east of Jupiter. You can also see the planet Mars, with its reddish hue. This planet will be one of the brightest objects in the night sky and is one of my favourite things to look at. It is a place in our solar system where life may have once existed, that may harbour very simple (microbial) life today, and that may even be the place where life on Earth came from! Yes, that’s right, life on Earth in the early days of our solar system may have been seeded from a meteorite from Mars. Not only that, but Mars is the next stop in space for humans to visit after returning to the Moon. It is a truly exciting place that represents the future of space exploration, and the evidence that we could gather from its surface represents the possibility of us learning even more about ourselves here on Earth.
If you are prepared to get up early, you can see another planet in our solar system – Venus. A bright pre-dawn ‘star’, it is difficult to miss. And if you do happen to have binoculars with you, you should be able to make out its crescent shape.
Other things to look out for in the sky include human-made objects. With clear skies in Cornwall, you might be lucky enough to spot a satellite crossing the night sky, which will literally look like a moving point of light. Or perhaps even the space station: in late August and for the first few days of September it can be seen in the early hours of the morning, crossing the sky as a bright point of light. The best resource to find out exactly when to see it is the incredible NASA site. If you do manage to spot it, don’t forget to wave to the onboard astronauts, they may just be looking back at you.
Autumn also gives us a great chance to see meteor showers – the Draconids between the 7-8th of October and the Orionids which is expected to peak overnight on October 21st. To see either of these, all you’ll need to do is look up.
Of course, you could also just look up at the stars without searching for anything in particular and wonder about what else is out there in the universe. One of my favourite things to think while looking at the night sky is that there could be someone (or something) elsewhere in the universe looking back at you, or at our Sun as a faraway star, who like you is wondering what else is out there.
The universe is truly stranger than you can imagine.