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Stargazing and Star Parties

Astronomy Travel

For many of us, the night sky has vanished. Those who live in urban or suburban environments have seen darkness at night replaced by a wash of perpetual light. Only the brightest stars are visible from our homes. If we’re lucky, we can find the Big Dipper, the Summer Triangle, and Orion from our backyard or balcony. Even escaping to a nearby park doesn’t help very much. Urban lights cast a long glow.

 

The difference between an urban night sky and a country one is startling. Away from city lights, the sky is ablaze with stars. They literally jump out at you, and it’s easy to become lost in the heavens. Where are the constellations? What are the names of all those numerous bright stars? In summer, the appearance of the ribbon of starlight called the Milky Way is an unexpected bonus. And with so much visible, wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what you’re looking at?

If you’re new to the night sky, it’s always nice to be with someone who can point out the stars and constellations. Photo by Jeff Zylland/NPS
The summer Milky Way is a stunning sight when viewed far from city lights. Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger

Stargazing Basics

If you’re unfamiliar with the night sky, take a moment to get your bearings before spending time under the stars. There are numerous stargazing apps (also called planetarium apps) available for smartphones and tablets. In late 2021, Space.com reviewed a number of these apps. Some are free, but you’re usually better off paying a few dollars for a superior product. Another thing to consider when stargazing is the weather. In this online article, Sky & Telescope magazine lists several weather apps designed for skywatchers.

You don’t need a telescope to fully enjoy the starry realm. In fact, a telescope restricts your view to a miniscule segment of the sky that’s often less than the width of the Moon. Star clusters, nebulas, and galaxies are fascinating in their own right and amazing to see. But inexperienced stargazers often feel a sense of disappointment when viewing these sights though large telescopes. They appear dim and colorless, unlike the magnificent, colorful views obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope.

To augment your eyes, an optical aid you might consider for stargazing is a pair of binoculars. Through them the Milky Way is a beautiful celestial river, the color of stars tends to be more intense, and if you know where to look, you can glimpse star clusters and galaxies beyond the reach of the eye alone. Whenever you go stargazing, always take binos with you.

Attend a Star Party

If you have the opportunity to explore the heavens away from city lights, don’t hesitate. One way to do this is to participate in a dark-sky star party. These are usually put on during the summer months by your local astronomy club. You don’t necessarily have to join the club, but you’ll need to learn how to be notified of an upcoming event. These can be large gatherings and may involve dozens of participants. Star parties take place out of town in remote locations, under dark skies, and often continue for several nights. There’s usually a fee to participate, and you’ll need to be prepared to either camp on-site or stay in a nearby hotel (if there is one). Yes, it’s for serious observers, but everyone is welcome.

What happens at a star party? During the day there are presentations by experienced observers and occasionally talks by noted astronomers. Often there’s an equipment swap meet, and usually a few companies set up shop on the site to sell observing gear. But the action really starts at night.

If you attend a star party, you’ll find a variety of telescopes and plenty of amateur astronomers willing to share their knowledge. Photo by Michael Quinn/NPS
Telescopes and stargazers are bathed in red light during an observing session; red light doesn’t ruin your night vision. Photo by Michael Quinn/NPS

At these parties, there might be a couple dozen telescopes set up each evening. Many of the scopes are large, the sky is dark, the summer Milky Way is magnificent, and the stargazing is amazing (weather permitting, of course). During the early evening hours, telescope owners are happy to have you peek through their scopes and ask questions about the gear they use and what you’re seeing. Sometimes you’ll find two scopes looking at the same celestial sight, which gives you a chance to compare instruments. Gaining a little hands-on experience and knowledge at these star parties is especially useful if you’re thinking of buying a telescope. But be aware that late into the night, these same observers typically want to do their own thing, which might include astrophotography, and would prefer not to be disturbed.

Stargazing Trips

Other opportunities to view the heavens from a dark-sky site can arise on vacation, whether you’re with a stargazing tour or taking a holiday that has a skywatching component. What makes a trip to a dark-sky location so enjoyable? For many, there is great pleasure in simply standing beneath a dark, crystal-clear sky, staring up and out into the cosmos. It connects you with the universe and reveals nature on a grand scale.

It’s also very relaxing. With stargazing, there is no need to rush; it’s a very tranquil pastime. Given the hectic pace of modern life, it’s wonderful to be able to kick back, unwind, and connect with the universe — and with yourself. Far from city lights, the night sky shines with a light show of its own, a show often highlighted by the naked-eye spectacle of the glowing Milky Way.

If you’d prefer to not organize your own trip to a dark site, consider joining a tour. TravelQuest stargazing trips are small-group excursions, where you’ll quickly become friends with your fellow stargazers, some of whom are repeat travelers. You don’t need to know a thing about the night sky. Our trip astronomer will introduce you to the stars, point out some of the finest sights, help you navigate the heavens, and explain what you’re looking at. We often bring telescopes with us, so you can get close-up views of assorted double stars, star clusters, nebulas, and even a few galaxies.

Where to Go

As can be seen from the images below, it’s difficult to get away from artificial lighting. Western Europe is especially bad, though the Scandinavian countries remain reasonably dark. In North America, parts of the west (particularly in the Rocky Mountain region) remain somewhat light-free. But even in the most light-polluted sections of the world, it’s still possible to find decent night skies in a dark-sky park.

A dark-sky preserve, reserve, park, or sanctuary is an area, often within a remote park or surrounding an observatory, that limits artificial light to reduce light pollution. Many of these sites are not completely dark, as light from nearby cities and towns can spill across the sky. As mentioned earlier, urban lights cast a long glow. The Dark-Sky Preserve page on Wikipedia lists all the current Dark Sky preserves, reserves, and parks.

False-color maps of North America and western Europe illustrate that light pollution is pervasive over both continents. Courtesy David Lorenz, Light Pollution Atlas 2020
On these two maps, reds and yellows are regions of high skyglow caused by artificial light; blue and black have low skyglow. Courtesy David Lorenz, Light Pollution Atlas 2020

As you might expect, the remote regions of the world are the last refuges of true darkness. Of course, they’re also the hardest to get to. Parts of Africa, the Atacama Desert in South America, and the Australia Outback remain unaffected by light pollution because they lack large cities. But to get there, you may need to join either a specialized stargazing tour, or an astronomy tour that includes some dark-sky observing.

For example, TravelQuest’s aurora tours to Iceland and Norway include a stargazing component as we stand watch for the appearance of the northern lights. On our trips to see a total eclipse of the Sun, we will, if feasible, either incorporate a starwatching segment into the tour (such as on an eclipse cruise), or offer a post-eclipse add-on package to go stargazing at a dark-sky site. And some our trips, such as our Costa Rica Star Party or our Baja Stars and Whales Cruise, have a focus on stargazing, with a tour built around that concept. Other astronomy travel companies often do this as well.

Night Sky Splendor

If you’ve never gazed in awe at a dark, star-speckled night sky, then you’re in for a real treat. Taking a stargazing holiday, or joining a stargazing tour, puts you in touch with the universe — it’s nature on the grandest scale possible. It’s both relaxing and invigorating. And sometimes, when you step out into the darkness and gaze skyward, you won’t believe your eyes.

A solitary observer enjoys a tranquil moment of contemplation while gazing at the Milky Way and the universe beyond. Photo by Neal Herbert/NPS

Header image by Rick Fienberg/TQ

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