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How To Get The Most Out Of A Night Under The Stars

time lapse photo of stars moving across sky
Richmond-area astronomers gather for a socially distant starwatch at Leakes Mill Park in Goochland, VA. (Photo: Tyler Hutchison)

There are so many astronomical events this year that you won’t want to miss. From blood moons and conjunctions to meteor showers and eclipses, there is always something interesting going on in your night sky. So here’s what you should do to get the most out of a night under the stars.

Find a dark location for viewing
First, you will want to choose the right location. Dark skies are better, and travelling just a few miles away from city lights makes stars and other sky objects appear much brighter. Unfortunately, many areas lack the necessary regulations to keep outdoor lights pointed directly at the ground, which means that beams from street lamps and other fixtures often light up the sky instead. This not only wastes electricity, but it also obscures our view of the natural night sky, making it impossible to see certain objects.

The problem of excess outdoor lighting is called light pollution, and it’s not just an issue for stargazers. Research shows that it also poses a threat to wildlife. Artificial light can harm the migration of shorebirds and can increase the risk of harmful algal blooms in aquatic environments. The presence of too much unnatural light after the sun goes down can even disrupt your body’s own circadian rhythm. Want to help solve this problem? The International Dark Sky Association provides a list of light pollution solutions for the general public. 

Maps such as this one that show local light levels, are helpful for figuring out the best stargazing locations. But even the most pristine night skies won’t help you unless you also use the right lighting on the ground. 

Use the right flashlight
While stargazing, it’s best to use a red-tinted flashlight. Humans can build up a kind of natural night vision the longer we spend time in the dark, which helps us tease out faint details when looking at deep sky objects. Since the nerve cells in our eyes are least sensitive to red light, a red flashlight provides the best of both worlds, allowing us to see distant objects in space and our immediate surroundings at the same time. 

If you use a smartphone or other device while stargazing, be sure to enable night mode. That might not be enough by itself to preserve your natural night vision, so you can also cover the screen in red plastic to create a better filter. 

Check local weather forecasts
The best nights for stargazing have low humidity and no clouds. The Clear Dark Sky website offers predictions about cloud cover, transparency, seeing, and other variables that astronomers use to decide whether or not conditions are good for stargazing. If it’s cold, consider bringing a blanket or heater (and maybe some tea or hot chocolate), and be sure to bring a comfortable chair or blanket to sit on no matter the temperature. 

Find out what to observe and when
The night sky is a dynamic place, which means that different objects move in and out of view throughout the week, month, and year. Some events, like meteor showers and eclipses, are predicted years in advance. Other sights are rarely predictable at all. For example, the recent comet NEOWISE was completely unknown to us until it was discovered by an orbiting observatory last March. 

But generally speaking, it’s possible to know exactly when certain objects will be visible. Spring skies in the northern hemisphere offer the most galaxies. Evenings in the summer and fall offer the best angles to view the Milky Way, while winter skies are home to some of the brightest stars of any season. 

One of the best ways to enhance your stargazing experience is to know what you’re looking at. Be sure to research the best time for viewing what you would like to see. In the past, astronomy reference books and printed calendars were the best way to get up-to-date information about the night sky. These days, all of that information is available online. Many astronomy sites post information about when certain objects will be visible, including printable star charts. There are also planetarium apps available for smartphones and other devices that use augmented reality to help you find your way around the night sky.

moon
Photo: Tyler Hutchison 

Some objects are very distant and require complicated equipment and years of skill to observe. For beginners, it can be easy and fun to start out by observing objects in our own solar system. If you have a small telescope or a pair of binoculars, point it at the Moon and see if you can spot different craters, mountains, and valleys. If you’re just observing with the naked eye, it might be fun to visually track how the planets move across the sky from night to night. Since planets and the Moon are some of the brightest objects in the night sky, you’ll be able to see them even if you aren’t able to get away from urban areas.

But keep in mind, because the Moon is so bright, a night that’s good for lunar observing is seldom good for looking at anything else. It’s always a good idea to consult astronomy apps, lunar calendars, and other resources to figure out the best night to see what you want to see. You might also want to check if your local astronomy club is currently hosting public events. For example, the Richmond Astronomical Society offers limited, socially-distant starwatches at local parks. These events are a great way to learn more about stargazing, since members often give guided tours of the night sky. They are also a great way to unwind and meet other people with a common interest.

Because there is such a rich diversity of objects and events to explore, astronomy is something that everyone can enjoy. Whether you live downtown or far away from city lights, there’s always something fascinating to see.  And now that 2020 is behind us, there’s never been a better time to start looking up!

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Article written by Tyler Hutchison, a sophomore physics student at William & Mary and an avid follower of all things outer space. He has been an active member of the Richmond Astronomical Society since 2015, serving on the Board of Directors and volunteering at local skywatches and other astronomical outreach events. He is also an experienced astrophotographer and winner of the Astronomical League’s Horkheimer/Parker Youth Imaging Award and Horkheimer/Smith Outreach Award.