Things looking up for summer French sky viewings

With a glimpse of Venus, a partial solar eclipse and meteor showers, there is lots to see in France this year, says Samantha David

27 June 2018
By Samantha David

Stargazing is best done in places with low light pollution, and if possible even above low cloud cover – which is why planetariums tend to be built on mountain peaks.

Not all of them are at altitude, however; most large cities in France have an observatory including Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille and Toulouse. The Observatoire du Pic du Midi de Bigorre (accessible by cable car from the tiny Pyrenean village of La Mongie, pictured above) is one of the oldest in Europe and has fabulous views of the sky. (It also has a small museum and a café.) Take warm jumpers because it’s chilly at night, even in the summer.

It is not necessary, however, to find an observatory in order to enjoy the night sky. The view will be good anywhere which is away from heavy urban street lighting. France’s national parks are ideal. Plan to sit outside for a couple of hours to let your eyes adjust to the night sky, and then you’ll see more of the celestial show. Parks where you can picnic late at night are ideal. 

To work out what you’re seeing, check out the website of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle which has a wonderful page explaining exactly what you can see from France, and the page is also in English. (nuit.mnhn.fr/fr/ressources/observer-ciel

On July 15, around sunset look up at the moon and if it’s a clear night you’ll see a slim waxing crescent hanging low in the sky.

Look just to the left of it and you’ll see an incredibly bright planet, so close that it will almost look like a ball being tossed into a lunar cup. That planet is Venus.

On July 27 at 8.30pm there will be a total lunar eclipse, the second this year, following the spectacular eclipse of the Blue Moon back on January 31. It will be the smallest full moon of the year because the moon will be at its furthest from the earth in July, and the moon will travel though the darkest part of the earth’s shadow meaning it could be a particularly deep eclipse.

On the same date, Mars will appear to glide very close to the moon. Look up and if you image the moon being at the centre of a clock face, you’ll see Mars at somewhere between 4 and 5 o’clock. The Red Planet will look like a super bright orange star. Mars doesn’t orbit round the earth in a smooth circle but gets nearer and further over time.

This year, it will be especially close to the earth; it hasn’t been this close since 2003, and it won’t be this close again until 2035. Using even a domestic telescope it will be possible to see all kinds of features on the planet’s surface including white polar caps and dark volcanic plains.

If you miss these dates, however, or they happen to be cloudy nights, keep an eye open for events linked to Les Nuits des Etoiles on August 3,4 and 5. There will be talks, classes, and stargazing evenings all over France that weekend. Find out more on the website of the Association Française d’Astronomie (AFA) – www.afastronomie.fr/les-nuits-des-etoiles

On August 11, look out for a partial solar eclipse just before sunset. As it’s not a full eclipse it may not be very noticeable from France, especially if it’s a cloudy day, but given a clear sky it will be visible with the naked eye.

The following two nights (August 12-13) will be equally interesting, as it will be possible to see intense Perseid meteor showers (inset) of up to 60 shooting stars an hour.

Viewing conditions should be excellent too, as the sky will be dark and moonless.

Perseids got their name from the constellation Perseus, because they seem to come from there. Meteors are actually pieces of comet debris heating up as they enter the atmosphere and burn up in a streak of light as they travel across the sky at 59km per second. When they are in space, they are called meteoroids, but when they reach the earth’s atmosphere, they’re called meteors.

Very occasionally a meteor doesn’t burn up completely and lands somewhere, when it is then called a meteorite. Most Perseid meteors are about the size of a grain of sand.     

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