How to get the most out of the Suffolk night sky this month
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August is a great month. The schools are out, the weather is warmer, and the skies are generally clearer.
That makes this time of year ideal for stargazing and losing yourself in the magic of the nighttime sky. And no one understands the wonder of astronomy more than Neil Norman.
Based in Hadleigh, Neil Norman is a Suffolk astronomer with 35 years’ worth of experience in the field. A self-proclaimed ‘backyard astronomer’ and fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, he first fell in love with stargazing back in 1986 and now dedicates his time to watching the skies.
But what is it he loves so much about the pastime?
“The tranquillity,” he explains.
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“When modern-day life has stopped, most people go to bed or watch something on TV, but I’m most at peace when I’m stood outside by myself looking at the stars. There’s just so much to learn because each star or comet that comes around and has its own story.”
And thankfully, being based in Suffolk means we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to stargazing spots thanks to the lack of built-up areas and lower levels of light pollution.
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“Suffolk is just perfect – there's so many dark locations in our county, and you’ve got to feel sorry for those living in cities.
"I live in Hadleigh, and luckily we’ve got a population of around six to seven thousand people – but if I head out just a couple of miles from where I live, it’s absolutely pitch black.”
Some of Neil’s favourite spots include Layham, Shelley, and Kersey - but he says anywhere will do as long as light interference is minimal.
“You don’t have to travel far at all, you can just stand in a field – with permission, of course – and watch the skies above.”
With that in mind, what should we be keeping an eye out for this month?
Firstly, it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled to catch a glimpse of the International Space Station (ISS).
The ISS is an inhabited artificial satellite that has been in low orbit since 1998, and currently houses astronauts from the EU, the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan.
“On Monday August 30, the space station will rise at 5.05am and set at 5.11am at a magnitude of minus three. It’ll be very bright, and look like a gliding star across the sky. You won’t be able to miss it. If you miss it on Monday, it’ll be visible again the following day too at a magnitude of minus three.”
In terms of planets, there are three planets you will be able to see clearly this month - Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter.
“Venus will be visible at around 45 minutes after sunset each evening this month. But it’ll be low on the horizon, so you will need a flat horizon to view it from.”
Venus, which is the second-closest planet to the sun, is very bright, and will look like a pure white star in the night sky.
“People often mistake Venus for a UFO and will ring their local constabularies trying to report an alien sighting, that’s how bright it is,” adds Neil.
The other two planets that avid skywatchers can be sure to see this month are Saturn and Jupiter.
The two largest planets in our solar system, they’ll be higher up in the sky and therefore easier to spot.
“Saturn will look like a tiny star, but it’s coffee-coloured, so you can tell it’s a planet. Another way for people to tell it’s a planet and not a star is that planets don’t twinkle the way stars do.
Fans of the nighttime sky will be able to see Saturn with the naked eye – but Neil suggests getting a large pair of binoculars if you want to go that extra step further and see the planet’s rings.
“Next to Saturn is Jupiter, which is big and bright – you can’t miss it. If you look directly in the southern sky, it’s just on the left-hand side of Saturn. It’s big and orange, and with a pair of binoculars, you’ll be able to see the four main moons that surround it – and over the course of an evening, you can watch them move around the planet.”
Neil adds that with a three-inch telescope, you will be able to see cloud bands on the planet, as well as the Great Red Spot, which is the largest hurricane in the solar system.
The star of the show this month however has to be the Perseids meteor shower, which is currently happening but will reach its peak on the night between Thursday August 12 and Friday August 13.
Associated with the Swift-Tuttle comet, its name is derived from the Perseus constellation, as that is the point at which it appears to hail from. The Perseids were first seen in 36AD.
“They travel at around 59km per second, which is about 129,000 miles per hour, as they hit the atmosphere.”
Viewers will be able to see around 120 meteors per hour across the sky, and they are visible to the naked eye.
“The Perseids travel quickly and are incredibly small – they're about the size of a grain of sand, but because they go so fast, the heat makes them glow before they burn away to nothing.”
The best time to catch a glimpse of this month’s meteor shower will be during its peak between midnight and 2am, but Neil adds you could potentially see them as early as 10pm.
“While you can enjoy a lot of astronomy with the naked eye, if you’re looking to get a more detailed look at things, I’d suggest buying a good pair of binoculars such as 10x50s. These will set you up quite nicely and tend to start at £20. And if you find you like using them, you can always progress and invest in something more accurate such as a telescope.
“One of the best things you can do though is to learn about the sky. There’s plenty of books out there that can teach you about the constellations. Once you’ve learnt the basics, you can easily locate anything that’s happening in the sky. From comets and meteor showers to supernovas, there’s no reason why you can’t see it all.”
Other dates to add to your 2021 stargazing calendar
Associated with Comet 21/P Giacobini-Zimmer, this meteor shower will take place between Thursday October 7 and Monday October 11 – but will peak on Friday 8 and Saturday 9.
Later in the month, the Orionids meteor shower will reach its peak on Thursday October 21. This shower, which is associated with Comet Halley, can however be seen from Friday October 1 and Saturday November 6.
Keep an out for fast, bright meteors with fine trains during November as the Leonids make their way through our skies. While they can be seen between Friday November 5 and Monday November 29, their peak will be the evening between November 17 and 18.
Through the first half of December, stargazers can be sure to see the Geminids meteor shower whizz through the night sky. They will peak on the evening of Tuesday December 14, but are active between Friday December 3 and Thursday December 16.
And finally, rounding off 2021’s astro calendar is the Ursids meteor shower. A sparse shower associated with comet 8P/Tuttle, its peak will be between Wednesday December 22 and Thursday December 23.