25 Stunning Sights Every Astronomer Should See
Here is a collection of my top 25 wish list items to see in the sky at night ranging from Iridium flares to solar flares and distant galaxies.
As the Iridium satellite communication network orbits the Earth, their antennas sometimes catch the sunlight and reflect it down to the ground. If it's dark where you are and you happen to see this glint it can be quite spectacular, especially if you aren't expecting it.
Bright Pass of the ISS
Sometimes it's all too easy to forget that there's a huge laboratory orbiting Earth. Seeing the International Space Station shining brightly as it passes overhead dramatically brings it all home.
If you've ever seen a thin crescent Moon, you've probably also seen Earthshine. This is where the unlit portion of the Moon is illuminated by light scattered off our planet's oceans and cloud tops.
Belt of Venus
When the Sun goes down on a clear night you might be able to spot a pink and purple band above the horizon opposite the sunset. This beautiful atmospheric phenomenon is known as the Belt of Venus.
This colourful atmospheric phenomenon is only visible during the daytime, high up overhead. These rainbow-coloured arcs are caused by ice crystals retracting sunlight.
Large Meteor Shower
Sometimes the conditions are right for one of the big meteor showers - the Geminids, Leonids, and Perseids in particular - to put on a really cracking show, with heightened levels of activity. If you catch one it won't be a night you soon forget.
It's not uncommon to see a few shooting stars while out observing, but meteor ?reballs are always memorable. Some leave glowing trail behind them for a split second; occasionally they break up into several glittering fragments.
Appearing as misty patches of light to the naked eye, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds - both galaxies near to the Milky Way - are surely on every astronomer's wish list. You'll need dark, transparent skies to see them well.
You'll need really clear, dark skies to see the Zodiacal Light, which amazingly is light scattered off tiny dust particles in the plane of the Solar System. Spring and autumn are a good time to look out for it.
Bright Naked Eye Comet
As astronomers we all long for the appearance of a bright naked-eye comet with glowing tails resplendent against a starry sky. Will comet C/2012 S1 ISON step up to the plate? We'll have to wait until later in the year to ?nd out.
Seeing the Milky Way in Sagittarius and Scutum is one of the highlights of the Northern hemisphere summer night. Either sit back and take it all in with the naked eye, or explore the rich star fields with binoculars.
The Milky Way cuts straight through the constellation of Cygnus, as does a dark band known as the Cygnus Rift. The rift is the silhouette of vast clouds of dust and gas within our Galaxy.
In the early summer months, after sunset and before sunrise, it's sometimes possible to see noctilucent ('night shining') clouds. Caused by tiny ice crystals high in our atmosphere re?ecting light from the Sun, these clouds create beautiful glowing patterns.
Just occasionally, often when the Moon is near to full, you might spot a large ring of faint light around our nearest neighbour. This is an atmospheric phenomenon created by ice crystals retracting the light from the Moon.
Few natural phenomena evoke such intense feelings of awe as the aurora. The source of many myths and legends, a strong auroral display is one of the most beautiful and dynamic celestial events that can be seen.
A Large Sunspot
When powerful magnetic ?elds in the Sun stop hot material from rising, a cooler region forms on the Sun's 'surface. These sunspots appear black in contrast to the bright surroundings. They can be seen with a telescope fitted with a specialist solar filter.
Solar prominences are huge tendrils of plasma that appear to reach up above the Sun's limb. Watching their shape change over a few hours is Fascinating, but you will need a specialist hydrogen-alpha solar telescope to see them.
Total Solar Eclipse
When it comes to celestial events the king of them all has to be the total solar eclipse. Caused when the Moon completely obscures the disc of the Sun they are a truly awe-inspiring experience. The next one is on 3 November 2013, with totality visible from central Africa.
On a sunny day, when the sky is strewn with wispy clouds, it's not uncommon to spot a parhelion or 'sundog'. These rainbow coloured patches of light some way to the side of the Sun, are formed by tiny ice crystals within the thin clouds.
A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly behind the Earth into its shadow. This can occur only when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned exactly, or very closely, with the Earth in the middle.
M42, the Orion Nebula, is perhaps the grandest nebula in the whole night sky. Lying in the sword of Orion, it's visible to the naked eye from dark-sky sites and is a stunning sight in telescopes of all sizes.
The Andromeda Galaxy
From a dark sky site M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is visible to the naked eye. Binoculars show its elliptical shape clearly, while larger scopes will begin to show the dust lanes that stretch across its disc.
The Crab Nebula
The crab nebula is a supernova remnant in Taurus. It can be spotted with a small telescope, but it's best seen through a really large aperture instrument - only then does its fascinating texture start to emerge.
The Leo Triplet
The Leo Triplet composes of galaxies M65, M66 and NGC3628, and lies about halfway between mag. +3.3 star Chertan (Theta Leonis) and mag. +6.6 slur Iota Leonis. Medium to large telescopes will show it clearly.
The Engagement Ring
A small but pretty asterism in the constellation Ursa Major in which six stars form a ring shape with Polaris being the jewel.
Kemble's Cascade is a collection of more than 20 colourful 5th to 10th magnitude stars arranged in a straight line over a distance of approximately five moon diameters, with the open cluster NGC 1502 one end.
Transient Lunar Phenomenon
This requires a lot of patience and skill. These small flashes are caused by the huge energy released by the impact of a meteoroid with the lunar surface. A good time to look out for them is during a meteor shower, when the chance of something hitting the Moon is higher.
Last updated: 2017-06-19