Adrian Dening's
Stars Over Somerset


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My weekly articles about what can be seen in the night sky over Somerset are broadcast every Thursday to Sunday at various times, on Yeovil's local community radio station Radio Ninesprings.
Since 2022, Greg Perkins has been broadcasting the articles on Apple FM in Taunton.
BBC Somerset also transmits Stars Over Somerset on Luke Knight's Friday evening show.
Please click on the link below to hear the interview that I gave BBC Somerset:
Adrian Dening & Luke Knight Interview MP3



Monday 29th April to Sunday 5th May 2024

First of all, something for the early risers!  From 4.30am on the morning of Wednesday 1st May, a quarter Moon will be just rising above the south east horizon.  This is an optimum time to observe one of the lesser-known clair-obscur visual effects on the lunar surface called "The Cutlass" because of its obvious sword-like shape.


At 2am on the morning of Friday 3rd, the famous "Globular Cluster in Hercules" reaches its highest point in the sky - this is the best time to observe the cluster as light from its hundreds of thousands of stars will be passing through less of our atmosphere.  Remember it is distortion created by our atmosphere that makes stars appear to twinkle and so the higher the angle, the better.


The constellation of Hercules will be located high in the sky towards the south east and the cluster, also known as M13 in the Charles Messier Catalogue can be found roughly halfway between the bright stars Vega in Lyra and Arcturus in Bootes. It is just to the right of the asterism (or shape) referred to as "The Keystone" in Hercules.

To the naked eye, from a dark location, the cluster will appear as a fuzzy blob.  Binoculars or a small telescope will start to reveal the detail with a bright centre where the stars are most concentrated.  I have provided an image below of what you are looking for, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Finally, there are a couple of excellent opportunities to spot the International Space Station during the coming week; Tuesday 30th April at 4.24am and Friday 3rd May at 3.35am.  In both cases, the ISS will appear towards the west and pass almost directly overhead.



Monday 22nd to Sunday 28th April 2024

Monday 22nd sees the peak of the Lyrids meteor shower, but I am not going to recommend it highly, as light pollution from an almost-full Moon will make the viewing difficult.  If you did want to try hunting those elusive meteors that can occur at a rate of 18 per hour, the radiant point where the shooting stars appear to originate from is just to the right of the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra.  At 11pm, Lyra will be located towards the north east, with the Moon much further south.


The Full Moon actually occurs two days later, on Wednesday 24th.  By 11pm it will have risen above the south east horizon.


Coincidentally, at that time, the tilt of the Moon makes a favourable opportunity to spot one of the rarer clair-obscur visual effects on the lunar surface known as the "Zeno Steps".  With your telescope, find the crater Zeno towards the top right of the Moon and then you should be able to spot what looks like three steps leading down to the crater.  I have provided an image below, courtesy of astronomer Danny Caes, to help locate the feature.


Because of the way the Moon orbits around us, if you went outside at the same time a couple of nights later and looked in the same direction, you wouldn't see it.  By Saturday 27th, the Moon will have become a 90%-lit gibbous shape and it won't rise above the south south east horizon until after 1am that morning. If you do venture outside to see it then, the bright red supergiant star Antares will be just to the right of the Moon.




Monday 15th to Sunday 21st April 2024

The evening of Tuesday 16th sees a 60%-lit waxing gibbous Moon which, if you venture outside around 9pm, will be located towards the south.  To the right of the Moon (more south west) and much closer to the horizon will be the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius and further right again, the constellation of Orion.


At the same time, just below and to the right of the Moon will be a nice target for a small telescope or binoculars - the Beehive open cluster of stars, also known as M44 as it is one of the deep sky objects catalogued by Charles Messier in the late 1700s.


The cluster is one of the closest to the Earth, approximately 600 light years away and it contains over 1000 stars.  With a very dark sky, it can just be seen with the naked eye and would then look like a fuzzy blob, but that won't be possible this time around because of light pollution from the nearby Moon.  With your telescope, you should be able to see the brighter individual stars though.


M44 sits in the constellation of Cancer, between the constellation's delta and gamma stars called Asellus Australis and Asellus Borealis.  Stars in a constellation are allocated letters of the Greek alphabet, in decreasing order of their brightness or magnitude.  Significant stars are also historically given names and in the case of Asellus Australis and Borealis, the translation from Latin is "Southern and Northern Donkey"!


Moving away from donkeys, due to the popularity of this winter's astronomy evenings at Ham Hill, I have agreed to run one further session on Friday 26th April.  Places can be booked via the Visit South Somerset website.



Monday 8th to Sunday 14th April 2024

Although by now, all the chocolate eggs will be long-gone for another year, someone asked me a question the other day about why Easter always seems to occur on different dates and as the reason is astronomical, I thought I would share it here.


The spring or Vernal equinox, when the Earth's tilt of 23.5 degrees is sideways on to the Sun and we therefore have equal periods of daylight and darkness, takes place on 21st March each year.  Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the equinox.


On a completely different subject, Mars and Saturn will appear very close together on the morning of Thursday 11th.  They will be tricky to spot as day breaks, but try looking towards the east south east at 5.30am and the pair will be just rising above the horizon.  Please don't be tempted to use binoculars or a telescope though, as the Sun will be rising in the same spot and you don't want to risk catching an accidental glimpse of it in your eyepiece!


Friday 12th is an excellent opportunity to identify the longest valley on the Lunar surface known as Vallis Rheita.  You will need a small telescope.  At 10pm, a waxing Crescent Moon will be located towards the west, with the constellation of Orion to the left of it.  Vallis Rheita is situated  near the Moon's south east limb and I have included a photograph below to help find it, courtesy of astronomer Andrew Planck.




Monday 1st to Sunday 7th April 2024

The coming week is a good opportunity to go hunting for faint deep-sky objects as during the hours of darkness, the Moon will be below the horizon and so not causing any light pollution.  The clocks will have just moved forward and we are now running on British Summer Time BST - all the times I quote for the next six months will be in local time to keep it simple.


Let's start with a comet - those icy visitors from the far reaches of the Solar System.  Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks could even be just visible with the naked eye at a magnitude of around +4.8 at the beginning of April.  If you venture outside just after dark, say around 9pm and look towards the west, Jupiter will be easy to spot.  To the right of Jupiter will be the constellation of Aries, just about to set below the horizon.  The comet will be very close to the bright star Hamal in Aries.


The "12P" in the comet's name indicates that it was the 12th comet to have the periodic nature of its orbit calculated and it takes 71 years to complete a full orbit, this time reaching "perihelion" when it is closest to the Sun, later in April.  Although it is believed that the comet was first observed way back in the 1300s, it was officially identified by French astronomer Jean-Louis Pons in 1812.  Its existence was then confirmed by William Robert Brooks in 1883 who, along with Jean-Louis, was an avid comet-hunter.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

If you have brought your telescope outside to try and see the comet's tail, there is also an opportunity to observe planet Uranus, which will be located a little above Jupiter.  It will have a magnitude of about +6.0 so will not be visible with the naked eye.




Monday 25th to Sunday 31st March 2024

On Monday 25th we have a Full Moon, but you will need to be an early riser to catch it as by 5am, a little before dawn, the Moon will be setting below the horizon to the west.

If you would prefer to venture outside on the Monday evening instead, there is an excellent opportunity to observe the International Space Station.  It will appear towards the west at 7.37pm and spend six minutes passing almost directly overhead, before disappearing to the south east.  You are looking for a pinpoint of light, like a star, but the dot is silently moving across the sky.
30 Second time-lapse photograph of the ISS courtesy of NASA

If you miss that one, there is another chance to see the ISS at 7.39pm on Wednesday 29th, where again it will be visible for around six minutes travelling west to east, but this time the ISS won't appear quite so high in the sky.


The reason why you only sometimes see the ISS is because its orbit around the Earth is inclined at 51.6 degrees.  If the orbit was zero degrees, then the ISS would be permanently flying over the Equator.  If it was 90 degrees, then the ISS would be passing directly over the north and south pole.  Every time the ISS passes between the northern and southern hemisphere, it crosses the equator at that angle of 51.6 degrees.   It moves at 27,600 kilometers per hour and at that speed, takes just over ninety minutes to complete one orbit.  During that time, the Earth has rotated a bit, so each orbit appears to be in a different place and only some pass over the UK.

ISS Orbit Diagram courtesy of Wikipedia

Of course it also has to be near dawn or dusk so that sunlight reflects off the enormous solar panels, otherwise you won't see a thing!

ISS Image courtesy of Wikipedia



Monday 18th to Sunday 24th March 2024

How about a bit of a visual challenge if you like early mornings?  Look towards the east south east at 6am on Friday 22nd to see Venus just rising above the horizon.  It should be quite easy to see with a magnitude of -3.8 so that's not much of a challenge at all!


At the same time, just below and to the right of Venus will be Saturn - much harder to spot in the dawn sky with a magnitude of +0.8


Please remember that the Sun will be rising in the same place so don't be tempted to use a telescope to see Saturn's rings - this is purely a "naked eye" experiment!


If instead you look in the same direction (east south east) around 8pm on Saturday 23rd, a much easier target to find will be a 98%-lit waxing Gibbous Moon.  That's almost a Full Moon which occurs two days later.


You could also have a go at trying to identify the constellation of Leo "the Lion" that will be directly above the Moon.  Archaeological evidence places Leo as one of the earliest recognised constellations, dating back as far as 4000BC with the Mesopotamians.


Mercury can be another difficult planet to spot because it always appears close to the rising or setting Sun.  On Sunday 24th Mercury reaches its furthest elongation from the Sun and it actually sets nearly two hours after the Sun.  The planet will be easy to locate, shining at a magnitude of -0.1 if you look towards the western horizon from 7pm.


At the same time, Jupiter will make another nice target above and to the left of Mercury.




Monday 11th to Sunday 17th March 2024

I'm going to focus (no pun intended) on the Moon and other targets in the night sky that will appear close to it during the coming week.

Firstly, about half an hour after sunset on Monday 11th, it may be possible to just see a faint 2%-lit Crescent Moon with a magnitude -1.2 planet Mercury a little to the right and below it.  If you are outside around 6.15pm, the pair will be located towards the west horizon.

At the same time, a bit higher and to the left of the Moon will be planet Jupiter shining brightly at a magnitude of -2.0


If instead you look towards the west around 9pm on Wednesday 13th, the Moon will be a 16%-lit crescent by then and Jupiter will appear to be very close to it.  Above them will be the Pleiades open cluster of stars, with the constellation of Orion further to the left.


Try the same trick again at the same time the following evening, on Thursday 14th and the Moon will appear to be closer to the Pleiades.  This is because the Moon is very close to us in astronomical terms and is orbiting around the Earth, while everything else in the night sky is much further away and only appears to move because WE are moving!  By Thursday the Moon will be a 26%-lit crescent as it heads towards a "first quarter" phase that I talked about last week.


Finally, around 9pm on Saturday 16th, the Moon will again be located towards the west, but much higher in the sky and now it will be a 46%-lit crescent - almost a first quarter.  Immediately above it, try to spot the star Elnath which is the beta star in the constellation of Taurus.  It will have a magnitude of around +1.6 while below it (and a much easier target) will be the alpha star in Taurus, Aldebaran.




Monday 4th to Sunday 10th March 2024

There's nothing particularly remarkable to recommend during the coming week, but on Sunday 10th March there is a New Moon.  This phase of the Moon means that the Sun is illuminating the side that we can't see from the Earth and the side of the Moon facing us is completely shadowed.....or in other words, you won't see it!


The Moon takes 27.3 days to orbit around the Earth and as sunlight hits it at different angles, then you see the different phases.  After a New Moon it appears as a crescent shape, followed by a quarter, then a Gibbous Moon leading up to a Full Moon.  Then everything works the other way around - it becomes a Gibbous Moon, back to a quarter, followed by a crescent and ending up with a New Moon again.


If the phase is "waxing" it means getting brighter or heading towards a Full Moon.  If the phase is "waning", that means getting dimmer or heading towards a New Moon.


To add to the complexity, if you see a Full Moon and go back outside  27.3 days later, you won't see another one!  You would have to wait 29.5 days because while all this has been going on, the Earth has travelled 1/12 of its yearly orbit around the Sun and so all the angles have changed!  In ancient times, this 29.5 days was called a Lunar Month because it was what people actually observed.


Finally, I am running the last of this winter's astronomy sessions at the Ham Hill Visitors Centre on Friday 8th March, starting at 7pm with a talk on general astronomy, followed by some star gazing if it's clear.  There are still a handful of places available and booking is through the Visit South Somerset website.



Monday 26th February to Sunday 3rd March 2024

How about a bit of asteroid hunting?  On the evening of Saturday 2nd March at around 8pm, the constellation of Leo will be located towards the east.  Just below Leo will be the minor planet or asteroid known as Juno.  You will need a telescope to find it as the magnitude is currently around +8.6 making it invisible to the naked eye.


Juno was first discovered in 1804 and was actually only the third asteroid ever identified.  Officially, its correct full name is "3 Juno" as a result.  Initially it was classed as another regular planet, but in the 1850s Juno was downgraded to the status of being a minor planet or big asteroid!


Juno is actually the tenth largest asteroid, with a diameter of approximately 250Km.  Being part of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, its orbital period (or the length of time it takes to go around the Sun) is 4.3 times longer than ours.  The Earth's orbital period is 365 1/4 days, but a year is rounded down to 365 days to keep it simple.  What do we do with the missing quarter days.....every four years we add one extra day, 29th February and call it a leap year.


I have provided a star chart to help you try and locate Juno above together with an image of it below captured by the Very Large Telescope / Sphere Team at the European Southern Observatory in Chile.


Alternatively, a much easier target will be a Last Quarter Moon which at 5am on Sunday 3rd March will be located towards the south, with the red giant star Antares to the left of it.




Monday 19th to Sunday 25th February 2024

How about a bit of observing during daylight hours?  Around 4pm on Monday 19th, a 79%-lit Waxing Gibbous Moon will be located towards the east and it should be visible even though the Sun will have not yet set below the horizon.

Just before 4pm that day is the optimum time to spot the Clair-Obscur visual effect known as the "Jewelled Handle" on the Moon's surface.

In the art world, the technique known as "Chiaroscuro" refers to the use of strong contrasts between light and dark and the technique is often associated with the Renaissance Period, being employed by artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt.


In the astronomy world, the French translation of "Clair-Obscur" refers to extreme contrasts on the lunar surface where sunlight falling on the landscape produces obvious shapes at certain times of the month, when the Moon is in a particular phase and light from the Sun is hitting it at a specific angle.

Sticking with the daylight theme, if you look towards the south east around 7am on Thursday 22nd, it should be possible to observe a magnitude -3.8 planet Venus just above the horizon.  At the same time, a magnitude +1.3 Mars will be just below and to the right of it.  This will be quite a challenge, but please don't be tempted to use a telescope or binoculars though, as the Sun will be in the process of rising beside them!



Monday 12th to Sunday 18th February 2024

If you venture outside around 7pm on Wednesday 14th and look towards the south west, Jupiter will be very easy to spot at a magnitude of -2.1, with a waxing Crescent Moon a little to the right of it.  Turning your gaze to the left and looking south, you will be greeted by the constellation of Orion.  Half way between Orion and Jupiter (and slightly higher in the sky) is the Pleiades open cluster of stars.  To the left of Orion and slightly lower will be the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius.


If you go out again at the same time the following evening, on Thursday 15th, you will have pretty-much the same view except that the Moon will be a little above and to the left of Jupiter.  This is because the Moon is very close to us compared to everything else and it is orbiting around the Earth a quite a speed!  Our natural satellite is actually travelling at 2288 miles per hour and at that speed, it takes just over 27 days to go around us, travelling just under one and a half million miles while it does so!


At the same time on Thursday 15th, planet Uranus will be located just to the left of the Moon.  It only has a magnitude of around +5.8 so you would really need binoculars or a small telescope to stand any chance of spotting it.


Finally, around half past midnight in the early morning of Saturday 17th is the optimum time to spot the Clair-Obscur visual effect known as the Lunar X and Y on the Moon's surface with your telescope.  The Moon will be setting towards the west, with the Pleiades just to the right of it and the red giant star Aldebaran to the left.




Monday 5th to Sunday 11th February 2024

How about a couple of observing challenges?  If you are outside and look towards the south east at around 7am on Wednesday 7th, you will see a magnitude -3.9 planet Venus.  Well that's not much of a challenge as a magnitude of that level is very bright.


At the same time, just to the right of Venus, a very thin 10%-lit Waning Crescent Moon will have just risen above the horizon.  Now that is more of a challenge, but we're not finished yet..........


Around that time, the Chinese space station "Tiangong" will be visible.  It appears over the west horizon at 7.05am.  The space station doesn't climb very high in the sky and by 7.10am it will have passed just above Venus in the south east.  At 7.12am it disappears below the horizon to the east south east.


Tiangong will have a brightest magnitude of around +1.4 as it passes above Venus so should be visible with the naked eye.  It will look like a star that is silently moving.  Please don't be tempted to use binoculars to follow its progress though, as it dips below the horizon in exactly the same spot as the Sun will be rising!


Tiangong is known as a 3rd Generation space station, meaning that it has modular construction, like the International Space Station and it was built in three stages between 2021 and 2022.  It currently has a crew of three astronauts on board.  The name translates to mean "Sky Palace" and its inhabitants conduct scientific experiments with the mission being controlled from Beijing.




Monday 29th January to Sunday 4th February 2024

It's a bit quiet on the astronomy front next week, with nothing particularly remarkable to see, but of course there are always plenty of regular targets to spot.  Probably the most obvious are the various constellations of stars.


Now what exactly is a constellation?  A constellation is defined as an area of the sky that contains visible stars forming a perceived pattern or shape.  They date back to early mythology with different countries and cultures inventing their own.


Probably one of the most obvious is the constellation of Orion that is very easy to identify at this time of year.  If you venture outside around 7pm, Orion will be located towards the south east, with the constellation of Gemini to the left of it and Taurus above.


In Greek mythology, Orion is "The Hunter".  In contrast, Indian culture considered the constellation to represent Nataraja, "The Cosmic Dancer" and some European cultures it is referred to as an "Archer".


To solve all this confusion, back in 1922 the International Astronomical Union formally accepted 88 different constellations.


Astronomers also talk about "asterisms" and these are just small patterns of stars that look like particular shapes.  They might be located within a constellation.  For example, the "belt" of Orion with the stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka is considered to be an asterism, as is the "Sword of Orion" that hangs below the belt with the Great Orion Nebula M42 contained within it.




Monday 22nd to Sunday 28th January 2024

On the evening of Thursday 25th we have our first Full Moon of 2024.  If you venture outside around 8pm, the Moon will be located towards the east, with the constellation of Orion to the south east.  Below Orion will be the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, that I talked about the other week.


This first Full Moon of the year is also known as a Wolf Moon, the name dating back to medieval times when it was thought that wolves howl at the full Moon.  Funnily enough, there is some truth to the myth as when wolves howl to mark their territory, they look towards the night sky so that their heads are tilted upwards and the sound travels further!


Remember I am always warning about catching an accidental glimpse of the Sun in a telescope because it is very bright with a magnitude of around -26.0 and this would cause instant blindness.  Well the Full Moon is a pretty bright target too - it has a magnitude of about -13.0 which is not enough to cause permanent damage, but it can be uncomfortable.  Most astronomers will use something called a Neutral Density Filter in front of their eyepiece to make everything dimmer, but this only works for the Moon - a Neutral Density Filter is definitely NOT good enough to observe the Sun!


Planet Mars hasn't received much of a mention recently.  Well if you are up at daybreak on Sunday 28th and look towards the south east around 7am, a magnitude -0.2 Mercury will have just risen above the horizon, with a magnitude +1.3 Mars just to the right of it.  Venus will be further to the right and higher up.  Please don't risk using that telescope, because the Sun will be rising directly behind them!




Monday 15th to Sunday 21st January 2024

On the evening of Monday 15th, the gas giant planet Neptune reaches conjunction with the Moon, when the two appear closest together.


Look towards the south west around 6pm and you will see a 24%-lit Waxing Crescent Moon.  To find Neptune, you will need a telescope because the planet currently only has a magnitude of around +8.0    Aim your telescope just a little above the Moon. 


At the same time, a much brighter target will be Saturn, located below and to the right of the Moon.  The planet itself is obvious to the naked eye, but if you point your telescope in that direction, you should be able to see the stunning rings of dust and you could have a go at trying to identify some of Saturn's numerous moons.


On the evening of Friday 19th, it's the turn of Uranus to be in conjunction with the Moon.  Look towards the south at 6pm to find a 67%-lit Waxing Gibbous Moon.  Uranus will be just below it and as the planet will only have a magnitude of around +6.0, it's telescope time again!


Easier targets to find that evening will be Jupiter sitting to the right of the Moon and the Pleiades open cluster of stars to the left of the Moon.


Finally, the early hours of Sunday morning 21st, say around 1.30am, is an optimum time to spot the Clair-Obscur effect known as "The Jewelled Handle" on the lunar surface.  At that time, the Moon will be located towards the west and I have provided a diagram at to help you find the visual effect.




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Screenshots courtesy of Stellarium


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