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Science

Clear constellations reward those who gaze to the sky

Long winter nights are ideal for stargazing, while many constellations can also be seen with the naked eye in the southern hemisphere's summer. So put down the digital devices and take a look at the night sky.

Tom Kerss, an astronomer and the Royal Observatory in London, said the northern hemisphere's winter skies are well-suited for stargazing, "We get the darkest skies, the longest nights - so we can see all the dazzling constellations that become synonymous with the winter sky: Orion, Gemini, Taurus."

But Kerss added that lucky winter stargazers might just be able to see some of the planets as well this year.

Shortly after sunset on Christmas Day, Venus was blazing low in the southwest, he said.

"It was very low, a bit like a search light on the horizon," he said. "It might look like a plane, but don't be fooled - it's actually a planet."

Royal Observatory in Greenwich

The Royal Observatory in Greenwich helps get the public interested in astronomy

Planetary pleasures

After Venus, for a couple of hours stargazers could have kept themselves occupied with the most distant planets in the solar system: Uranus and Neptune.

"These two are so faint you really do need binoculars or a telescope," Kerss said, adding that telescope would not be necessary to see Jupiter, which rose in the east as Venus was setting.

This winter will present particularly good opportunities for looking up at the stars, Kerss says. "We are actually going to get the best opportunity in 12 years to see Jupiter, at the end of this and the start of next year," he said.

"But you might just also see Mars, the red planet in the east," he said, if you stay awake long enough. "It's certainly worth take a look at just to see that red color - particularly when it's low down."

Southern hemisphere

Star gazers enjoying the southern hemisphere's shorter summer nights will have to stay up later but will be able to see the Christmas constellations as well. "It's just they're upside down from what you see in the northern hemisphere," he said.

Hundreds of brilliant blue stars wreathed by warm, glowing clouds in the stellar nursery of the 30 Doradus Nebula, a turbulent star-birth region in the Large Magellanic Cloud (Photo: Hubble Space Telescope)

The Large Magellanic Cloud harbors turbulent star-birth regions, like this one in the 30 Doradus Nebula

And there are heavenly bodies in the southern skies that are not visible up north. "You can look closer to the center of the Milky Way, there which is always beautiful to see," Kerss said. Also visible are two fields of light, the large and small Magellanic Clouds, which are in fact galaxies orbiting the Milky Way.

"Entire galaxies full of stars which you can see with your naked eye," Kerss said. "Take a look through binoculars and they become absolutely spectacular."

Feeling insignificant

Stargazing is also a good way to keep children occupied, and much can be seen with the naked eye. This is something Gillian Finnerty can vouch for - she's 21, but has been fascinated with astronomy since childhood.

"It's amazing, being able to see something which is light-years away from your own back garden," Finnerty tells DW. "There could be life on a planet or a star and they could be looking down on us.

"It just makes you feel so insignificant that you just want to get a better understanding," she added.

Finnerty, who's now an astrophysics student at the University of Sheffield, has a particular interest in spotting the red planet this winter. She has dreams of going there - she's applied for Mars One, a one-way mission to the planet.

Mars (Photo: Hubble Space Telescope)

Mars One will take four people on a one-way journey to the red planet

"I find out any day now … 265,000 people have applied, so it's a slim chance," Finnerty said, adding that she would like to stay there and help build a permanent human colony.

Once we've seen planets in the winter night sky, advances in space technology may eventually allow more of us to visit them.

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