Where to find gloriously dark night skies

  • By Mike Lynch
  • Friday, March 18, 2016 4:00pm
  • Life
Where to find gloriously dark night skies

With the full moon lighting up the night sky I realize that this week is probably not the appropriate time to write about observing into dark skies, but I wanted to give you some stargazing food for thought for future planning.

If you’re an avid amateur astronomer, you know what I’m talking about. You like to do your best observing with your telescope or your best astrophotography in the darkest place you can find. Most of the time we have to settle, because the reality is to make a living and/or not live the life of a hermit we have to live in a place with artificial night light to some degree or another. Light pollution is something we have to live with.

As I’ve told you many times, there’s still a lot of stargazing to be enjoyed even in the light pollution, unless it gets too out of hand. It’s sad that so many people, especially kids, have never seen the full extent of the glorious night sky because of light pollution.

I’m not for going back to horse-and-buggy days. Street and exterior building lights are needed, but so much of it is wasted — sprayed into the sky for no reason. Think of the energy savings if the urban lighting could be directed to the ground where it’s needed. There have been steps taken. In many cities in Arizona and other places streetlights are required by law to cap their light from shooting into the sky. That alone can make a real difference. If there’s any doubt to how much light pollution there is just take a look at a satellite view of North America at night. We’re not the only ones shooting excessive light into the heavens though. Europe and other continents are just as guilty.

All is not lost though. There are still dark places to go to. At some point you owe it to yourself to find those truly dark areas. Just do your research and planning. The important thing is timing. Always plan your time within four days of the monthly new moon. If there’s a bright moon it won’t matter where you go. One of my favorite websites to help with this is Clear Sky Clock. Not only can you use it to find really dark skies in your area, but it can also help you determine if the skies will be clear enough. It uses data from the Canadian Meteorological Center, but it covers Canada, the continental U.S. and even parts of Mexico.

No matter where you settle in for a night of truly dark stargazing, you will want to acquire your night vision and hang on to it. It can take as long as an hour to achieve that and even a brief flash from a flashlight can spoil your night vision for up to another hour, so be careful. Any light you need to use for star maps and such should be red light exclusively. You can buy red headband flashlights at camping stores and departments. Also, if you’re using one of those stargazing apps on a cell phone or a pad make sure it has a setting for red screen.

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