The concept of stars in the night sky has always fascinated me. Being raised in a city it was really hard to imagine and comprehend the books and theories about stars.
My husband on the contrary was raised in a village with less light pollution and had the privilege of gazing at the night sky quite often with gorgeous views of milky way.
Thanks to the National parks in US, night sky viewing is made easy to all its residents.
But being new to this field (as we didn’t undertake any course in astronomy) we were posed with some questions on when to view, what to view etc. There are a lot of articles which helped us in taking up this adventure.
Here is our simplified guide to star gazing! This is dedicated to all those beginners who wish to star gaze in any part of the world.
Which is the best place to go for star gazing?
Any place which provides clear dark cloudless wide skies is best suited for stargazing. In US most of the National Parks offer night sky program.
The national parks in drier areas especially in California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and South Dakota offer best options.
When to go for stargazing or which is the most preferred time?
The night of the new moon or the nights leading to new moon or immediately after the new moon. The theory behind this is stargazing can be clear when there is no light reflecting from the moon.
That would make new moon night perfect! But the nights before and after new moon can also be perfect if timed well.
New Moon is not the absence of moon, it is just that Moon rises and sets with Sun so we cannot see it in the night sky . On days leading to new moon, the moon sets early in the evening i.e before sun set and
rises early in the morning, before sun rise. Hence these days of waning moon will also be perfect if you go before moon rise.
To sum it up:
1. Choose the nights of new moon/days approaching it/2 to 3 days just after it.
2. Check the moon rise and moon set times on the chosen day.
3. Check to make sure the sky is cloudless and clear with no chance of rain.
4. Time stargazing between sunset,moon set and moon-rise, sunrise i.e when there is no moon and sun in the sky.
Which season or time of the year is most suited for star gazing? What to spot in the night sky?
During winter/fall earth is facing only 25% of the milky way hence the stars are not dramatic. But they are very clear due to less amount of reflection from stars. We can observe the Orion constellation, Sirius, Rigel, Betelgeuse etc.
During summer earth is facing 75% of the milky way and hence we can see the dramatic night sky. Scorpius, Sagittarius, Leo, Ursa Major, Summer triangle (Deneb, Vega, Altair), North Star, Mars, Jupiter Saturn can all be sighted.
The picture is not as clear as that in fall due to reflecting lights from many stars.
What are the camera specifications and manual control features we used?
Pentax K-3 II 10-20mm, lens f/4, aperture ISO (up to 12800), 30 sec + exposure time. Bulb mode with a trigger can also be used. Tripod is a must!
Care must be taken when increasing ISO beyond 6400 as it introduces noise in the picture.
These are from a beginner DSLR photographer point of view!
A peek into our recent star gazing experiences!
Winter star gazing at Joshua National Park:
We spent our New Years eve star gazing at the Joshua National Park. We chose one of the waning days of moon. That day sunset was at 4.45pm and moon rise was not until 4 am in the morning, so we timed our star gazing at 7.30 pm at night.
We chose to go that early in the night because the temperature is very low in winters and drop sharp after sunset. The sky was pretty clear and weather was very chilly, our little girl had a peek at the stars for a minute and rested in car while we spent 30 minutes outside. This is one of the cons of stargazing in winter.
We did get a clear view of Orion the hunter constellation and the stars Sirius, Betelgeuse and Rigel. This was very special to us as my hubby and daughter had always talked and made stories about these stars during their play time!
The stars were very clear, but we could not spend too much time because of the chilly weather. With this amazing experience, we vowed to stargaze again during one of the warm summer nights.
As the luck would have had it , we got the opportunity at Badlands national park during 4th of July weekend.
Summer star gazing at Badlands National Park:
We spent my hubby’s birthday eve stargazing at Badlands National Park. It was the night before New Moon. We arrived at the Cedar Pass Lodge (where we had booked a cabin for the night) early in the evening when the sky was totally covered with thick black clouds.
We had lost all hope of viewing the stars that night. By the time our dinner was done, sky started showing a ray of hope. The sky was clear by 9 pm when sun had just set. We knew about the night sky program at the Cedar Pass Amphitheater, so we went in at 9 pm, we could observe the Jupiter with 4 of its moon from the telescope they provided as part of the night sky program. There was a talk by ranger till 10 pm. By then the sky had started to get dark and the stars slowly showed up when their turn came.
Waiting for the stars to show up after sunset was so much fun. At around 10.30 pm everything was so clear. Thanks to the night sky program we could spot Scorpius, Leo, Ursa Major and minor Constellations, planets like Jupiter, Mars and Saturn, and stars like Altair, Deneb, Vega which formed the summer triangle, North Star, Arcturus (the brightest star in summer sky) the satellites orbiting the earth and not to forget a shooting star too.
We chose to stay even after the program and take a few pics with our DSLR.
At a point of time only we 3 were left to gaze at the millions of stars in the pitch dark environment. We truly felt blessed.
We returned to our cabin at 11.20pm and the weather was not chilly at all. Our little girl enjoyed it as well all the way along. By 12 pm midnight the show ended with sky covering itself up in dark clouds followed by rain, thunder and lightning!