Sky Watching

March 9th, 2012

With the current solar flare all over the tech news, I had hoped to see the Northern Lights tonight. Solar flares affects the Earth’s magnetic field in a way that I’m not qualified to explain, but the result is the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, can be visible at much lower latitudes than normal.

However, even without the Northern Lights the night sky is fascinating. We’re lucky here as we have very limited amounts of street lighting, so that orange glow seen in the sky around towns and cities is never a problem.

The night sky is also more accessible than ever thanks to excellent software that means anybody can find out what they’re seeing. I’ve blogged about it before, but Stellarium is fantastic, and free. On the iPhone Distant Suns is also excellent, along with GoSkyWatch and Pocket Universe. They also use the iPhone GPS and Gyro so it’s a case of point the phone, identify the star!

At this time of year Orion is not as prominent as during mid-Winter, but Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, is still readily observable. Directly south at around 8PM this week and 20 degrees above the horizon. The planets are also stunning with Venus and Jupiter in the south west between sunset and 8PM, Venus being the brighter object. Mars is a bit close to the full moon currently, but in another week it will be clear again. Have a look also for M45, the Pleiades Cluster (or Seven Sisters), between Orion and Venus but higher up.

The International Space Station also makes an appearance occasionally. It’s especially awesome as it sails brightly through the sky in silence. When the timings are right the station orbital plane runs over the southern part of Wales, and at 400Km altitude is visible from southern France and the Faroes at the same time. The station needs to be in sunlight whilst the observer is in darkness, so just before sunrise or after sunset. For the next month or so it will be on the dawn side at UK latitudes, but mid April and it should be visible again in the evening. The stunning, and free application Celestia can help visualise the mechanics of orbit, but doesn’t use real-time orbital elements. The website is the easiest way to find the visible passes. On the iPhone there is also GoSatWatch.

Both Stellarium and Celestia are Windows/Mac/Linux compatible too, so no excuses!

Finally, tonight I saw Fedex 1, a Boeing 777 Freighter out of Stansted heading for Memphis. Not in the same league as the other stuff, but I still love watching jet contrails illuminated by moonlight. Again, there’s an app for that!, also on iPhone!

A couple of other similar posts: Celestial Nav | ISS