Amazing things to see in the night sky

Published: September 21, 2020 · Updated: September 22, 2020

Meteor shower shooting stars Sky2020/Shutterstock

T-shirted and mop-haired, Professor Brian Cox wanders the world’s most spectacular landscapes to explain why tides surge, how the planets are born, or how acorns descended from stardust. But for downtime, the University of Manchester physics professor and BBC presenter could happily spend nights lounging on your cottage dock, looking up at the night sky.

“As far back as I remember, I was interested in looking at the night sky,” says Cox, whose televised oeuvre is featured on BBC Earth Canada. Balmy nights in summer are an ideal time to binge on the stars. Cox recommends grabbing binoculars, loading a stargazing app on your phone, and scouting these highlights:

Meteor Showers: bathe in cosmic dust

Every August the Perseid meteor shower offers shooting stars at rates of 50 to 80 an hour—all thanks to Comet Swift-Tuttle and its 133-year circuit around the sun. “As we pass through the orbit of the comet, we pass through the rubble” in Swift-Tuttle’s wake, Cox says. A predictable annual light show is the result.

Andromeda Galaxy
Robert Eder Astronomy/Shutterstock

Andromeda: travel to a galaxy far, far away

As skies darken around the new moon, look for the Andromeda galaxy—billions of stars that are “by far the most distant thing you can see without a telescope,” Cox says. Locate it by finding the “W” in Cassiopeia, then following the right point down to a faint glowing smudge. The light you’re seeing “set off before there were any [modern] humans on Earth,” Cox says, and it has travelled for more than 2 million years to reach your eyes.

The moon
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The Moon: get to know a old friend better

Then there’s our underappreciated consort, the moon. Cox calls it “a very, very beautiful thing.” With binoculars and a map, “you can spend hours just navigating around” lunar craters, Apollo landing sites, and “seas” and “oceans.” Created after a collision between Earth and a Mars-sized planet almost 4.5 billion years ago, the moon has played a key role in stabilizing our planet’s rotation and making life possible. “If the moon weren’t there,” says Cox, “you might not be here to look at it.”

Want to hear more from Brian Cox? Tune in to BBC Earth Canada for shows such as Wonders of Life, The Planets, Wonders of the Universe, Human Universe, and Wonders of the Solar System.

Read more: Gorgeous starry skies to keep you looking up

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