9 Great Steps to Night Sky Viewing – Look up! The sky calls to us. Humans have been mesmerized by it for centuries. At night, under the right conditions, the inky black heavens glitter with an infinite number of stars. Throughout the year, it dazzles us with showers and in parts of the world, performances of dancing Aurora Borealis or Aurora Australis.
All year long, opportunities abound for viewing. Taking care to plan will serve to increase your chances of seeing the maximum number of stars, meteor showers, and finding Auroras in comfort.
Scanning the night sky on your own or with the family is an inexpensive way to get out of the house and create some excitement. Not only can the experience be fun, but we learn without even knowing it. Very few tools are required, and many of them we already have laying around the house – flashlights, sleeping bags, water bottles, or a thermos.
While telescopes and stargazing seem to be two united items, the former is not required to derive enjoyment from the latter. In fact, telescopes can be cumbersome, finicky, and downright expensive purchases. Save that adventure for a visit to an observatory and an eye full of stars! No, this expedition does not require costly, cumbersome tools. It’s simple, outer space fun, from the comfort of Earth.
1. Meteor showers
Learn when the best showers happen. As the earth passes through cosmic debris during the same time each year, the particles burn up as they enter the earth’s atmosphere. They occur all year long, and learning the location of the constellations helps locate the best viewing. Why? Because meteor showers are named after the constellation where they originate or radiate. This point is called the Radiant.
Meteor showers to watch:
Perseids – named after the constellation Perseus. This meteor shower is one of the most spectacular shows in the sky! It averages 60 meteors per hour during the peak viewing – if the moon isn’t more than a sliver and the clouds clear out.
Some years, the sky blazes with 100-150 meteors an hour. Check a sky map for your location, but the best viewing is typically during the first week in August in the early morning hours before dawn during a new moon.
Orionids – look for Orion in mid-to-late October and right on through December. There are plenty of nights available with this shower, so be sure to bundle up and check out the night sky. The cooler air makes the viewing crisper, too.
Taurids – An earlier start in October and runs through November but look for the constellation Taurus instead. This shorter meteor shower is more active earlier than later in its run.
Geminids – The twins provide a display that peaks mid-December.
Lyrids – Look for Lyra in the sky in mid-April. This shower is the only significant shower during this time. While it may produce 15-20 meteors per hour like the Leonids, no other showers occur during the Lyrids.
2. Constellation map
Take a glow-in-the-dark map or a red-filtered flashlight to help you view the map and keep the light pollution around you low.
3. Pack supplies
Dress for the weather and possibly hiking. Make it an adventure!!
4. Avoid Light Pollution
You will want to get away from city lights and even smaller neighborhoods. Avoid street lamps and farm lighting as well. State and National Parks often offer excellent locations.
5. Moon cycle
Along with human-made light, the natural light of the moon will impede any sky viewing. Stars will be dimmer; fewer meteors will reach your sight; the auroras will be dull or non-existent.
Viewing the Auroras is trickier.
-Best viewing is from late August to March but can occur all year long.
-The further north you travel, the better the opportunity for viewing. Reliable Northern Lights sightings can be seen in season in Norway, Alaska, and Iceland. However, the lights have dipped as far south as Louisiana, but that’s an unreasonable expectation.
-Is the continental U.S. your preferred travel destination? You’re in luck! Download an Aurora storm forecast app when you’re traveling in more northern states. It will alert you when the potential for Northern Lights is high. Then head in the right direction and park yourself under the night sky and wait.
-They’re called Northern Lights for a reason – they’re in the northern sky. So, look north!
7. Check the weather
Like most night-time viewing, clear skies are a necessity. Clouds block the view and storms are dangerous.
8. Bring friends
The more eyes on the sky, the more likely sightings will happen. And it’s just more exciting with company.
9. Make it an annual tradition
Go camping or have a midnight picnic once a year. Whether you only seek a peaceful night under the stars, aim to count shooting stars, or hunt the elusive Aurora Borealis and celebrate the adventure!