Science in the skies

Remember the sky is dynamic and changes throughout the night and the seasons. As the Earth orbits the Sun, most stars move across the night sky emerging from the East and setting in the West. Throughout the year, as the Earth moves to a different position in space, the position of the stars will change. On a clear night in dark places, like our National Parks, you could see as many as 2,000 stars and the Milky Way resplendent overhead.  You can also look for planets, meteors - and not forgetting the moon. You might even catch the Northern Lights when activity and conditions are right, as well as the International Space Station travelling at 17,000mph overhead.

So, what’s up there?

The Moon

The moon is the closest celestial object to Earth, at an average of 238,855 miles away, it would take you about 9 years to walk there without stopping. A moonlit night may not be so good for stargazing but makes for an excellent opportunity for activities like walking or trail running, a superb back drop for storytelling and an inspiration for night-time photographers.


There are several hundred comets that spend most of their lives among the planets of the inner Solar System. Some comets are likened to dirty snowballs, being made up of a mixture of dust and volatile ices such as water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia. Comets leave trails of gas and dust behind them that burn up leaving the classic comet tail.

Comets are quite rare and roughly one comet per year is visible to the naked eye, particularly bright examples are called Great Comets, the most famous one being Halley. Halley is the only naked-eye comet that might appear twice in a human lifetime. Halley last appeared in the inner parts of the Solar System in 1986 and will next swing by earth in mid 2061.

Meteors / Shooting Stars

As particles of dust fall through the Earth’s atmosphere, they are seen as streaks of light across the sky as 'shooting stars'. At certain times of year, as the earth passes through clouds of space dust, there will be amazing meteor showers and as many as 100 shooting stars may be seen in an hour! The most visible ones happen in August, October and December.


We have eight planets in our Solar System, they look like stars in the night sky, with five being bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. Obvious planets to look for are Venus – very bright especially after dusk and before dawn, and Mars that can be distinguished by its reddish colour. They don't twinkle like stars - just a steady light.


Stars are balls of gas that emit heat and light as they undergo intense nuclear fusion process. The Sun is the nearest star to Earth at about 93 million miles away. There are lots of different types of stars, hot new stars are white and older cooler stars appear red.

Northern lights

The northern lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, can be seen across England but are more frequent in the North, and in the winter. The darker the skies, the better the chances of seeing this phenomenon. The lights depend on solar activity, which makes sightings of the northern lights unpredictable. The best way to find out about when and where they might happen is to sign up for forecasts (1-3 days) or alerts (1 hour).


Constellations are groups of stars in the sky that form patterns. There are 88 officially recognised constellations. Throughout history, humankind’s imagination has been ignited by the stars and the patterns they form have been interpreted as animals, objects like the Plough and mythological characters.


A galaxy is a collection of stars, gas and dust that are bound together by gravity. Here on Earth, we are part of a galaxy called the Milky Way, which contains more than 400,000 million stars, and measures about 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter. Our nearest neighbouring galaxy is Andromeda, which you can see with the naked eye.

International Space Station and Satellite passes

Passes of the International Space station (ISS) overhead are a spectacular sight at night or dusk. Look for a very fast bright moving object, which takes about one minute to cross the sky. When and where the ISS will be passing overhead can be predicted, so to find out when you might see it in your location, visit Nasa or download the ISS spotting app.