For the best stargazing, look up for dark skies
If you live in a remote rural area surrounded by open land you have an ideal location for sky watching. But most of us live in suburban and urban areas consumed with light pollution. It’s hard to find dark skies close to home with excessive outdoor light illuminating streets, parking lots and ball fields. These lights wash out all but the brightest stars in the night sky. We’ve found close to home places where binoculars can introduce you to an amazing star-and-planet filled sky. Where to find dark skies near where you live can be a challenge, but if you do some snooping around you will find them.
Cloudy conditions obscure the sky so the most important criteria is clear skies. Most weather apps now show the condition of the night sky. Little clouds signify not so good viewing, but a crescent moon with stars indicate a cloud-free sky. Become familiar with a good local weather source in your area.
Start in a wide open area like your front or backyard
When Gene bought his first telescope we were sure our backyard would be ideal for stargazing. That was until we realized the lovely old trees surrounding us were impediments to the sky. We could look directly overhead straight up to see stars because tree foliage blocked our view of the sky. Binoculars worked best when I sat on a chair and looked up or even better when I laid on a beach chaise lounge chair to enjoy the view.
- We went to our second floor deck to find dark skies. It was not quite in the tree tops but we had a wider view with less light polution.
- We tried the front yard with a wide driveway and that gave us more sky. It also had a bright streetlight that we couldn’t do much about.
- Neighbors were kind enough to turn off their entry lights when we asked but it wasn’t ideal.
- The bottom line is you have to work within the confines of your property and neighborhood to get the most of night sky watching.
How to avoid light pollution
We met an amateur astronomer at a star party who explained how he found dark skies in his neighborhood, a heavily light populated suburban neighborhood. His neighbor had a large flood light illuminating his backyard. To shield his telescope from the light he made a simple screen out of plastic pipe and dark fabric. His screen had two panels that folded together for storage. He admitted it was not the best solution on a windy night but did a good job of obscuring the offending light.
To reduce light pollution at your house is fairly easy. Reduce exterior lights by only using them when and where it is needed. And only using the amount that is needed with energy efficient bulbs that are appropriate.
Turn off lights inside your home if they shine light near your viewing area. It’s as simple as switching off any lights that shine through a patio door on a backyard deck.
You can avoid shielding lights if your home has a second story deck or accessible rooftop, both are ideal location for star watching.
Search your neighborhood to find dark skies for stargazing
Local or state parks designed for playgrounds, play fields and picnics are often empty in the evening hours when the stars fill a cloud-free sky. If you have a public park nearby, you probably will find a darker sky. Find a bench or picnic table, pull out your binoculars and sit back and enjoy the sky. If there’s a pond, lake or river you’ll often find it unobstructed and free of lights making it an even darker sky, and a good choice to stargaze.
TIP: When you venture out at night bring along a flashlight preferably with a red bulb, not white. Your eyes are less sensitive to red light and it allows the flashlight to illuminate the area without interfering with your night vision.
Mr. Moon can help or hinder. You’ll find the sky darker if the moon is new when it’s at its smallest. As it changes to a full moon it can be like a spotlight in the sky making stars and planets difficult to identify.
Dark sky websites worth a visit
Light pollution threatens not only our “right to starlight”, but can affect energy consumption, wildlife and health.
At www.darksky.org you will find the International Dark Sky Association that shows us how to reduce light pollution. The site illustrates how we can make a difference using lighting that reduces light pollution.
DarkSiteFinder.com has similar information.
The Globe at Night program is an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness and submit their information from a computer or smart phone.You might also be interested in:
Gene and Katie Hamilton are amateur astronomers who follow the stars and write about their dark sky adventures. They are members of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.