By Melissa Hart on February 1, 2022 in Travel
Many of us give only a passing glance to the night sky, whether we’re en route from car to house or out on a neighborhood walk with the dog. We may see the moon and a handful of stars between the lights of passing aircraft. We might also see the occasional satellite whizzing overhead if we know what to look for.
However, those who spend more intentional hours gazing up at the sky — especially away from the ambient light of houses and businesses — discover thrilling rewards. With just a few simple preparations, you can view everything from the moon’s craters and Saturn’s rings to quarterly meteor showers and the expanses of the Milky Way streaking across the sky’s dark abyss.
In this article, we’ll share some of the fascinating events that stargazers can witness if they plan or get lucky. We’ll also offer definitions and tips so that you know what celestial wonders you’re seeing and how to best view them.
First, What’s What
An asteroid is a large rock that orbits around the sun. Asteroids break down into
smaller parts called meteoroids. A meteor is one of these meteoroids — often a tiny piece of dust — that enters the Earth’s atmosphere and combusts before it hits the ground. This is what we call a “shooting star.” A meteorite is a meteor that survives the transition into the Earth’s atmosphere and hits the ground intact. Meteorites can be as small as a grain of rice or as large as the 66-ton mass of metal discovered in Southern Africa.
Conversely, a comet is an object made up of rock, dust, and ice (potentially spanning tens of miles wide). As comets move close to the sun, they outgas, creating tails made of glowing dust and gases millions of miles long. A meteor shower occurs when Earth moves through the debris left by a comet. During the peak nights of a meteor shower, you can observe up to 50 “falling stars” per hour!
An eclipse occurs when one celestial object obscures — either partially or completely —another one. A partial eclipse of the moon, for instance, happens when the Earth moves between the sun and the full moon, but they aren’t completely aligned. A full eclipse of the moon, on the other hand, occurs when the sun, moon, and Earth are perfectly lined up.
In a rare full eclipse of the sun, the moon moves over the sun in perfect alignment and casts its shadow over the Earth, dimming and cooling stargazers for several minutes. You can plan for a solar or lunar eclipse with a calendar like this one.
The Milky Way is the galaxy we call home, hosting plenty of dust, gas, and stars. What may look like a band of white across our sky is actually made of millions and millions of stars. People in the Northern Hemisphere can view the Milky Way from April to October. Clouds and light pollution can obscure viewing, so for maximum enjoyment, find the darkest area possible for your stargazing adventure.
Constellations, of course, are groups of stars that form particular patterns: think The Big Dipper or Orion’s Belt. Their origins are referenced way back in ancient Greek literature, though no one is entirely sure who named the constellations or when. A planet is a celestial body that circles the sun or another star, while stars themselves are giant balls of hydrogen and helium held together by gravity. Hot stars throw off a blue light, while colder stars have a reddish color.
Can’t tell the difference between a planet and a star? Just remember that a star twinkles, while a planet does not. Note that a planet may look bright or dim in the night sky depending on its distance from Earth.
The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, occur near the North Pole; collisions between particles from the sun and Earth’s atmospheric gasses produce colorful flashes of light from August to May. The ideal place to look for Northern Lights is Alaska; however, you may also spot them in Idaho, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Washington State. The Southern Lights are referred to as aurora australis; to view these, you need to travel to a southern region such as Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, or Tasmania.
Finally, the International Space Station (ISS) orbits the Earth, acting as a home to astronauts from around the world who use its cutting-edge science lab to study life in space. We can often see the Space Station moving across the sky because it reflects light from the sun. The ISS resembles a bright star and moves more quickly than an airplane, without flashing lights. You can even sign up for updates, and NASA will alert you when the ISS is flying over your location.
Seeing is Believing
Interested in witnessing a celestial event with friends or strangers who also adore the night sky?
Here are several options:
- International Dark Sky Parks are publicly or privately owned locations with public access, protected so that visitors can enjoy and study starry nights free of light pollution. At Middle Fork River Forest Preserve in Illinois, staff offer educational programs and star viewing. Colorado also has several Dark Sky Parks, including Jackson Lake State Park. Other stargazing locales include Indiana Dunes National Park in Indiana, Dark Sky Reserve in Central Idaho, and the banks of the Obed Wild & Scenic River in Tennessee.
- Overnight camping trips also offer plenty of opportunities for stargazing. (EarthSky maintains a vast list of their favorite locations around the world.) If you’re camping, you may want to rent or purchase a rooftop tent mounted on top of your vehicle; this setup enables you to look at the stars from the comfort of your sleeping bag, safe from insects and other critters on the ground.
- If you’re interested in viewing a cosmic rarity, on April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will occur over 13 states in North America. People in Mexico will experience it first; then, it will move from Texas diagonally to Maine and then to Canada’s maritime provinces.
Interested in watching it firsthand? Make sure you have an unobstructed view of the sky and a good pair of solar eclipse glasses.
Party with the Stars
Still searching for some sky-loving pals? Find your local astronomy club. Often, members will allow guests to look through their telescopes at events, and many are delighted to share information with anyone interested.
These gatherings, called star parties, are held annually across the U.S. For instance, the Idaho Star Party invites participants to enjoy the great outdoors for a weekend of guest speakers and even a deep sky scavenger hunt.
Star lovers gather, as well, for meteor shower viewing parties. Check the American Meteor Society’s calendar to determine which meteor shower is coming up when. The calendar also provides information on peak nights, radiance, velocity, and moon phases (which can affect viewing quality). Local astronomy clubs and science centers will likely host similar events.
Looking ahead, major meteor showers for 2022 include the Perseids from July 17 to August 24 (peaking on August 12); the Leonids from November 14 to 21 (peaking on November 17); and the Geminids from December 4 to December 17 (peaking on December 14). Be aware of the phase of the moon on your preferred night, and note that it’s more difficult to see meteors during a full moon and in locations heavily affected by light pollution.
To increase your chance of seeing meteors, let your eyes adjust to the dark for at least 20 minutes, and lie on your back so that you’re able to see as much of the sky as possible. To see the Perseids, look toward the constellation Perseus, which is the point of origin for this shower. Likewise, to see the Leonids, look toward the constellation Leo, and to view the Geminids, locate the constellation Gemini.
Tips for Stargazing
Whether you’re in the city or the country, these tips will maximize your enjoyment of the night sky.
- Think layers. Even if it’s 75 degrees at 9 p.m., temperatures can drop suddenly, leaving you shivering and cold. Wear comfortable clothing, and pack a warm hat and gloves, just in case. Bring a cot or an inflatable camping pad, plus a warm blanket and a tarp to help prevent chill. Want to pack your pillow for maximum comfort? Anything goes!
- Don’t forget snacks. Even if you’ve just had dinner, you’ll be grateful later in the evening for a Thermos full of hot chocolate, cider, coffee, or tea. Sandwiches, fruit, jerky, and trail mix all travel well, too!
- Beware of bugs. Mosquitoes can ruin an otherwise perfectly planned stargazing adventure. Insect repellant is essential.
- Check the weather. Dry, clear nights are ideal for stargazing.
- Get some altitude. You want to be as high above buildings as possible to cut down on light pollution.
- Preserve your night vision. Use a red light or red filter in your flashlight or headlamp. No red light? Cover your flashlight with red cellophane.
- Use binoculars to observe details such as the moon’s craters and Jupiter’s moons. Many libraries loan out binoculars and telescopes. Check this list to determine availability and contact your local library as well.
- Look into purchasing a telescope. Before you commit to a model, you can try out a few different versions at a local astronomy club event and talk with members for their insights.
Dark Sky Maps and Apps
Sky & Telescope offers an interactive sky chart, which allows users to input their location and create a custom map of the night sky for any date and time. Numerous apps available for iPhone and Android devices also enable you to quickly identify particular objects in the night sky simply by pointing your smartphone at them. Also, consider attending a local planetarium show. Often, these programs include short films packed with information about astronomy and history, and many allow participants to look through sophisticated telescopes with skilled interpretive specialists who can point you in the direction of particularly exciting objects.
Taking the time to look up and learn about your night sky offers numerous rewards, and opportunities for camaraderie, travel, and adventure. With a little research and preparation, you can experience rare celestial events such as solar and lunar eclipses, annual meteor showers, and spectacular constellations at any time of year.