Stargazing in London – What You Can See Under London Skies

The thought of stargazing in London sounds a strange concept.

All that light pollution turning the sky a burning glow of amber, with very little star light being able to penetrate through all the light glare, it makes almost the ardent stargazer and astronomer defeatist.

Fear not, we have been stargazing for many years now and can tell you not only the best way to stargaze in London, but also what you are likely to be able to see.

Although the light pollution has steadily become worse, and only set to become even worse still despite so much campaigning and lobbying, there is a ray of star light.

Some of the brightest objects in the sky are so bright, they can even outshine the immense glare of Greater London at night!

Not even the huge floodlit beams of light that seem to traverse the night sky in London are a match for planets such as Venus or Jupiter, and no light on Earth is strong enough to block out the mighty illumination power of our Moon!

You may not be able to see the dimmest objects that can be seen in rural areas, but there is no shortage of amazing and thought provoking night sky objects to captivate your senses and make you wonder what truly is out there!

What night sky objects can you see in London

Let us start by taking a look at some of the wonderous objects visible in London through the dense light pollution.

London is classed as Bortle 9 sky.

It probably is of no surprise that Bortle 9 is the most light polluted sky on the planet.

Bortle 1 is the darkest. The UK is so small, and light pollution has taken over country to such an extent that sadly the UK no longer has any Bortle 1 skies.

These are truly dark skies.

We have Bortle 2 skies around Snowdon and parts of Scotland, and we have Bortle 3 skies in England within the South Downs, which is only a 1 hour 30 min drive from London, or a 1 hour train ride!

For those of us in London, here is a look at some of the noteworthy naked eye visible objects you can see in the night sky:

The Moon

Moon over St Paul's Cathedral

Our friend the Moon orbits the Earth every 27.3 days, so roughly once a month.

It’s big, bright and has to be one of the most fascinating objects to study after dark.

Its light is so bright it can be seen during the day. Not many objects in the night sky can penetrate through our atmosphere. The Moon and Sun are two such objects, but little else can.

The great thing about the Moon is that it’s very close, well relatively speaking compared to everything else you can see.

The Moon is a familiar object, and easy to spot of course.

If you have a good pair of binoculars, standard 10×50 are just fine, you can see some really good detail including craters and surface shadows.

Even a small telescope can bring to life amazing craters such as the famous Tycho crater, which is arguably the most impressive crater, which is the remains of an asteroid impact on the Moon during the time dinosaurs were walking our planet.

Some stargazers do nothing but study the Moon. There is that much to see and study.

Did you know: Although the Moon may look huge as it rises, the effect is an optical illusion. The Moon is no bigger as it rises as it is when it’s high in the sky!

The only thing the Moon can’t penetrate are our pesky clouds!

So as long as the Moon is visible, and there are no clouds, you can study and observe from pretty much anywhere in London – even in the heart of Piccadilly Circus!

Orion Constellation

Orion Constellation visible in London
Orion Constellation – Copyright: Wunderlust London

The Orion Constellation is arguably the most impressive constellation in the night sky.

It’s also my personal favourite.

To the untrained eye it just looks like a bunch of stars, but when you know the pattern, and see it in its entirety just like the image created above, it dominates the night sky – and is very bright!

As well as looking really impressive on its own, it hides so many treasures.

The three stars running horizontal across the middle of Orion is called the Orion’s Belt. Three stars with an average of 1,000 to 2,000 light years away.

Between Orion’s legs you’ll see the Orion’s Sword. Stare slightly away from the middle star and you may see that it isn’t a star at all, it will look like a ‘fuzzy light’.

The fuzzy light is actually a nebula and called – unsurprisingly – Orion’s Nebula!

A nebula is the birthplace of stars. Orion’s Nebula is one of the brightest and most studied nebulas in the night sky. It’s even possible to capture it with a mobile phone!

We’re not done yet, there are two more famous surprises Orion has in store for us.

Have you ever heard of the Horsehead Nebula?

It’s an incredible birthing place full of hydrogen, and when Hubble took some photos, you can distinctly make out the shape of a horse’s head within the nebula, hence the name Horse Head Nebula.

Unfortunately, even in the darkest Bortle 1 skies it’s impossible to see the Horse Head Nebula with your naked eye. You need an incredibly large telescope, or astrophotography equipment to see it. It’s very feint.

Last on the list of Orion’s goodies is an object visible to the naked eye, and that’s the star Betelgeuse!

It’s the top left star in Orion’s visible shape, and you’ll see it’s slightly orange in colour.

The reason for the colour is Betelgeuse is coming to its end, and when it ends it will go out in such a huge bright bang that the explosion will be visible in the daylight on Earth!

This could happen anytime from tomorrow and the next 10,000 years.

So perhaps not worth waiting up for!

Pegasus Constellation

Pegasus Constellation visible in London
Pegasus Constellation – Copyright: Wunderlust London

The Pegasus Constellation is one of the easiest constellations to find in the night sky, even in the light pollution skies of London!

The reason Pegasus is so recognisable is its shape, it’s almost a perfect square!

Although there are other stars that are part of the constellation, to make up Pegasus’s legs and hooves, these are fainter objects in the sky and not easily visible under London skies.

The main Pegasus square is brighter and easily visible.

Pegasus is, of course, Perseus’s noble steed who helped him take Medusa’s head to destroy the Kraken by turning him to stone.

Pegasus is visible almost all year round at different times of the night, although it is most recognisable between September and March in London.

Cassiopeia Constellation

Cassiopeia Constellation visible in London
Cassiopeia Constellation – Copyright: Wunderlust London

Sticking with the Clash of the Titans theme, the Cassiopeia constellation also sits up in the night sky and can be seen any time you can see Pegasus.

It is also very easy to recognise as it looks like a large, slight disjointed, ‘W’ shape in the sky.

Queen Cassiopeia is the mother of Andromeda, the princess ordered to be given to the Kraken by Thetis due to Queen Cassiopeia’s comparison of Andromeda’s beauty to the beauty of Thetis.

Surprisingly, this Clash of the Titan’s story plays out night after night.

Pegasus and Perseus rise, with Perseus holding Medusa’s head, chasing Andromeda with Cassiopeia watching over.

Cassiopeia although slightly feinter than Pegasus and Orion but is just about visible under London skies.

Jupiter

Behind the Sun, the Moon and Venus, Jupiter is the fourth brightest object in the night sky.

It’s the largest planet in our solar system, and relatively close to Earth, which is why it is one of the brightest objects.

It can outshine even the brightest of London lights, and whenever it is in the sky, you’ll see in wherever you are in London.

Although Jupiter is easily spotted with the naked eye, if you get the chance to stargaze through a telescope, you’ll see something pretty remarkable and not known to humankind until the year 1611.

Looking at Jupiter through a telescope, even a small telescope, you will see the four main moons of Jupiter dancing around the planet.

Jupiter has over 60 moons, but many are too feint to see even with a large telescope, but the four largest and closest moons are easily seen.

It wasn’t until the year 1611 that Galileo’s invention of the telescope allowed him to see the four moons of Jupiter for the first time in human history.

Venus

Venus is the brightest object in the night sky if you discount the Moon and sun of course.

You won’t find Venus high up in the sky anywhere near midnight though.

This is because of Venus’ proximity to the Sun. It orbits the Sun closer than we do, so it’s never too far away from where the Sun is.

It isn’t as elusive though as Mercury.

Mercury is difficult to spot unless the Sun is setting, or the Sun is rising.

Venus though is a little further away, so it can be seen a little later after sunset, and a little earlier before sunrise.

Stars tend to look little more than a tiny dot in the sky, Venus is so big and bright it looks like a small orb.

It’s possible to see crescent shadows on Venus with a medium or large size telescope, although conditions need to be right.

Mars

There has been a lot of press coverage of Mars as of late.

Various spacecraft have entered orbit recently sending back so many new, high definition and wonderous photos of the Martian surface.

It looks breath-taking.

There are also plans to colonise Mars one day in the not too distant future, which truly will be one big step for mankind!

Mars isn’t as big as Jupiter or as bright as Venus, but it is easily spotted as it has a distinct salmon colouring.

As it’s a planet it will look more like a ball or orb than the small pin-prick size of ordinary stars (not that any star can be considered ordinary in anyway).

Mars is big and bright enough to easily be seen across London!

Saturn

Saturn is most famous for having a beautiful ring system.

In fact, the complex but amazingly aligned rings is made up of particles of rocks and ice, circling around the planet in a uniformed dance, and have done so for millions of years.

Now I will warn you, Saturn on a great day is rather feint.

During 2020 and 2021 both Jupiter and Saturn are rather close, at least based on the view from Earth.

At the moment and for the next couple of years whenever you see Jupiter, you will see Saturn.

As Saturn is much dimmer than Jupiter it may take a little time to find it, but it is visible across London.

Unfortunately, without a telescope it’s not possible to see the rings.

A telescope with a minimum of 4 inch aperture, and a 25mm lens or less will give you the most magnificent view of the rings.

You won’t see any close up view of the structure but the view through a telescope will allow you to see the rings around the planet – and let me tell you, it is absolutely stunning!

Summer Triangle

There are two rather unique and coincidentally shaped constellations in our night skies, and both are in an almost perfect triangle shape.

One is called the Summer Triangle and the other is the Winter Triangle.

The Summer Triangle is, unsurprisingly, named due to the fact it is visible mainly during summer – although it can be seen at different times of night across spring, autumn and winter.

During the summer it is often found almost overhead.

The Summer Triangle is made up of the three stars Altair, Deneb and the famous and bright Vega star.

You may remember that Vega was the star in which the plans for building a one person space vehicle came from in the Jodie Foster movie Contact.

Winter Triangle

The Winter Triangle is another almost perfectly shaped triangle that is more visible in the Northern Hemisphere (which includes London of course).

Again, just like the Summer Triangle, it hangs nicely overhead meaning the tall buildings and skyscrapers of London do not cause too big of a distraction or obstruction.

The Winter Triangle is made up of the three of the brightest stars of the night sky, Betelgeuse, Sirius and Procyon.

We’ve already talked about Betelgeuse already, as it forms part of the Orion Constellation, and as we mentioned it’s easily recognisable because of its red colouring.

Sirius is even easier to spot.

Although it sits lower in the night sky, which can be a problem around the tall buildings of London, it is easily identifiable as it appears to flicker beautifully in the night sky.

Sirius itself isn’t flickering, but the brightness of one of the closest stars to Earth and its low altitude in the sky, creates the illusion of the flickering affect.

Get above the atmosphere and the flickering disappears like magic!

Stargazing with Binoculars in London

Everything we have looked at so far is visible to the naked eye, without the need for binoculars or a telescope.

The effect on the number of stars and objects visible to anyone with even the modest pair of 10×50 binoculars is simply jaw dropping.

So many more stars are visible.

It looks a little strange to start with. Only the brightest stars that can outshine the bright lights of London can be seen but looking through binoculars appears to flick a switch and turn on hundreds more stars ordinarily invisible.

Binoculars are also a good way of bringing out some of the detail in the Orion Nebula!

Craters and shadows on the Moon are also visible.

If binocular stargazing in London is of interest you may want to consider a stronger pair of binoculars.

20×80 binoculars will create amazing magnification, and open up more stargazing possibilities, but these are heavy and holding them with the magnification will create a shaking affect.

Even the slightest, even unnoticeable, movement of the arms or hands will make hand-held binocular stargazing with a 20×80 pair challenging.

The solution to this is a binocular stand. These keep the binoculars steady allowing you to look through.

Considering a good enough pair of 10×50 binoculars can be purchased for less than £50, it is a great way to get into the hobby before spending out on a telescope.

Stargazing with a Telescope in London

You may feel that stargazing in London with a telescope is a futile effort, but you may be very surprised!

Sure, the light pollution is incredibly strong and the orange glow over the London night sky doesn’t help with star visibility, but with a telescope and a modest DSLR connected, you can take some amazing astrophotography!

This doesn’t mean telescope stargazing in London isn’t possible. Far from it, but there are limitations.

For those of you no familiar with Rory, also known as Astrobiscuit, you should really check out his Stargazing and Astrophotography in London YouTube channel.

Residing in the heart of London he proves how possible astrophotography is, and what can be done with modest investment.

It’s pretty entertaining too!

Here’s a recent video on how to capture Jupiter, Mars and Saturn with its rings in London, with a budget of just £100!

Where is the darkest sky area in London?

The three darkest dark sky areas in London are Richmond Park, Colne Valley Regional Park and Epping Forest. These areas are the furthest away from dense light pollution of Greater London and are also the largest green areas in London.

Although there is nothing that could be considered ‘dark sky’ in London, the best opportunities will lie in large park or woodland areas and those in the furthest boroughs away from the centre of the capital.

Here you won’t have to deal with direct lamp post or floodlight glare either.

The nearest dark sky to London will be the South Downs National Park, which stretches across East Sussex and West Sussex down on the south coast of England.

Driving from London to the South Downs will take approx. 1.5 hours, and a train will take just over an hour.

There are a couple of B&Bs within the South Downs area, plus there are plenty of B&Bs and hotels in neighbouring Eastbourne, Brighton, Worthing, Chichester, and Portsmouth.

Can you see shooting stars in London?

Yes, it is possible to see shooting stars in London. Despite the Bortle 9 class sky, bright meteors can shine up to -2 mag. This is brighter than Mars. As Mars is visible in the night sky within London, so is a shooting star. The Perseids have the brightest shooting stars, which is better for viewing in London.

Can you see the Milky Way in London?

It is not possible to see the Milky Way in London due to excessive light pollution. A Bortle sky rating of 6 or lower is required to see the Milky Way, whereas London has a Bortle sky rating of 9. The Milky Way is invisible to all Londoners.

In fact, a few years back London had a power cut. 90% of the lights of the town were switched off, and the capital plunged into darkness.

Around 30 minutes later the London police started to receive calls from worried residents of strange lights in the sky.

Those strange lights turned out to be the Milky Way!

If you want to see the Milky Way in a good amount of detail you will need to travel to skies with a Bortle rating of 3 or lower.

From London the nearest Bortle 3 sky is in the South Downs.

In Conclusion – Stargazing in London

If you live in London and want to stargaze you shouldn’t let a little thing like light pollution stand in your way.

There are still many stars, objects and beautiful treasures to be found in the night sky even through the haze and glow of the London suburbs.

Binoculars and telescopes can help bring out detail, and astrophotography will help open up a whole Universe of excitement!

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