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The Sky at Night in Downton

Local resident, Michael F Barratt is a member of the Fordingbridge Astronomers in Hampshire and has his own Facebook Page – Moot Halt Observatory.  Here he tells us what to look for in the night skies over Downton. 

Michael can be contacted at and is always pleased to hear from others with their observations and queries.

What to look for in Winter

Jupiter continues to dominate the evening sky at a bright magnitude of -2.5. It is unmistakable, shining brighter than any of the stars in the sky. Unlike the stars it does not “twinkle” but shines with a steady light.  This is because it does not produce its own light but shines with the reflected light of the Sun. The giant planet is now setting at around midnight so the best views are in the early evening, when it is still quite high above the horizon.


The constellation of Orion (the Hunter) contains the bright first magnitude stars of Betelgeuse and Rigel.  Betelgeuse is a red giant coming towards the end of its life – and Rigel a hot, relatively new blue giant. Orion also has one of the showpieces of the winter sky – the Orion Nebula, visible to the naked eye underneath Orion’s Belt, out of which are born new stars.

The constellation of Canis Major (the Great Dog) has the brightest star in the whole night sky – Sirius (the Dog Star) which, because of its low altitude in the UK, twinkles incessantly producing all the colours of the rainbow.  Other constellations on view are Auriga (the Charioteer), Gemini (the Twins) and Taurus (the Bull) with their many wonderful open star clusters.  Look out for Messier 44 (“The Beehive”) which can be found with the naked eye as a misty patch in the constellation of Cancer (the Crab) midway between Gemini and Leo (the Lion) lying pretty

Map of the night sky in mid-February 2024 (around 2100 GMT)

NIght sky February.jpg

much on the Ecliptic (the path taken by the Sun, Moon and most of the planets).  Seen through binoculars, it looks like a swarm of bees.  These star clusters are, astronomically speaking, very new, containing mainly recently born blue stars.  

The full moon occurring on January 26 is traditionally known as the “Wolf Moon” - and the one on February 24, the “Snow Moon”.


There are also a number of comets in the sky at the moment although you will need good binoculars or a telescope to see them.  The famous Halley’s Comet is now on its way back to the inner Solar System but will not be visible until 2061.


A new comet, designated as C/2023 A3 (Tsuchinshan-ATLAS), was discovered by the ATLAS survey in Hawaii on 22 February 2023. The object was also independently found in images by the Purple Mountain Observatory (Zijin Shin or Tsuchinshan) taken on 9 January 2023. It is thought that this long-period comet takes around 80,000 years to orbit the Sun. This means that the structure of the icy object has remained dormant for tens of thousands of years in the extreme cold of the cosmos. Currently, C/2023 A3 is located about 7 astronomical units (1 AU = 93,000,000 miles) away from the Sun but as it gets closer, it will begin to release gas and dust, creating a coma around the nucleus that will reflect sunlight and make the comet visible from Earth. As the comet moves closer to the Sun, the coma is expected to become larger and visible to the naked eye.  Its progress can be followed on the Society for Popular Astronomy’s website ( or please get in touch with Michael at for more information on this comet or anything else astronomical. 

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