From Solar Eclipses to Sky Parks: A City-Dweller’s Guide to Stargazing
BY ZACHARY MARKMAN
The night sky is big—and so is your fascination with it. Meanwhile, your apartment is small and in the middle of a bright, sprawling megalopolis. So what’s an urbanite in need of intergalactic wonderment to do to make the most of the summer sky before the cooler temps return? Consult this handy (st)article.
Pick a Spot, (Almost) Any Spot
Be sure to check out light pollution maps to find locations near your city with the best conditions for stargazing.
Our ancestors could look up each night with mouths agape at the number of visible stars. Modern light pollution means that most of us will need to drive from our homes to replicate the experience. The International Dark-Sky Association keeps a list of some of these best (e.g. darkest) places, which they call Sky Parks. Check a light map like this one from Jonathan Tomshine to get away from the brightest population centers for a more pleasant viewing experience.
Pro tip: When you pick a place, make sure you’re clear of blacktop parking lots. Latent heat from hours in the sun causes “heat shimmer”—disturbances in the air that can blur sights if you are using magnifying optics to aid you.
Stellar Summer Standouts
If you’re hoping to catch a shooting star or two, the annual Perseid meteor shower is visible from July 17th through August 24th this year.
Some of the best summertime opportunities to see Mother Nature’s finest phenomena are fleeting, so plan accordingly. The upcoming 2017 solar eclipse could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those of us lucky enough to live along its path. Even if you aren’t in the path of totality, see if you can pause participation in that Slack thread for a few minutes to enjoy the lunar shade, which will be visible in many U.S. cities.
Not able to see the eclipse? Don’t worry, the Perseid annual summertime meteor shower is visible from July 17th to August 24th this year, with a peak meteor frequency around August 12th. The International Space Station also makes for a reliable, trackable, well-documented target for your first outings, and it can fortunately be seen shining and slowly drifting across the sky from many places in North America.
Prefer planets? Take a peek at this handy tool by Time and Date that lets you see what time to look for them and how likely you are to see them based on your location. Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter will be prime targets during August.
Want to navigate like the old days? Look for the Summer Triangle. Stars of such bright magnitude may be visible even in the middle of a bright city.
Know the Moon
Keep track of the moon’s phases for a stellar view of everyone’s favorite natural satellite—even from the city.
While you can’t control the brightness of the moon during these spectacles, you can and should try to pick stargazing nights that coincide with a new moon to minimize ambient light and allow your eyes to perceive the less twinkly stars. Not spending a lot of time keeping track of the moon? Don’t worry, StarDate offers an intuitive moon phase calculator to help you figure out the best nights to spend under the stars. Be sure to double-check the forecast to avoid any late-night surprises with the weather.
Simply can’t make it out for a dark night? The Moon itself has plenty of features and lots of history to keep you entertained. The Apollo landing sites are best seen in detail if you find a friend with a telescope (or pop by a local observatory—a number of cities and universities have them, often with particular nights open to the public).
Pack the Essentials
No binoculars? The Milky Way is often visible to the naked eye during the summer months – just don’t forget a jacket in case the temperature cools off at night.
Once you’ve picked a night, it’s time to prepare a pack of the necessities. Most people probably won’t find an amateur telescope hiding in their crowded studio apartment, but see if you can find the old pair of binoculars you buried under your bed. The common recommendation given is for a pair of 7 x 35s or 7 x 50s if you have them, but any binos will improve your experience. The bigger the first number, the greater the magnification. The greater the second number, the more light your binoculars tend to let in. Having a larger second number leads to better performance in low-light conditions like stargazing.
Even if you can’t find your binoculars, you might still be able to see the Milky Way, which is brighter in the Northern Hemisphere during the summer months.
Not exactly sure what you’re looking at when you look up? Sky Map for Android and Night Sky for iOS make use of your phone’s internal gyroscope to serve as a dynamic and highly-detailed guide to the night sky. The apps function as your very own assistant to point out what constellations, planets, and objects are visible, and where to point your attention to be able to see them. Just make sure to charge your smartphone and bring a small external battery to keep your phone going if you’ll be keeping the screen on.
Don’t forget—even though it’s summer, the nights can get chilly, especially when you’re far away from urban heat centers. Be sure to bring a towel to sit on (grass can get wet), dress in layers to be safe, pack a thermos with a toasty beverage, and bring along a buddy. Because the sky’s big enough for all of us to enjoy.