Urban Stargazing: Practical Tips

Home & Family, Outdoors, Traditions
on August 20, 2013

Amateur astronomers flock to places like Big Pine Key, Fla., and Socorro County, N.M., to take in the breathtaking nighttime horizons rife with stars, planets and far away galaxies. But what about the many folks who live in crowded cities, where the glow of street lights clouds the night sky? Try these practical tips from astronomy.com for stargazing in the city:

Equipment: Large telescopes gather more starlight and have the ability to peer further into the faraway universe. However, they also are more sensitive to heat currents and atmospheric turbulence like wind, which moves airborne particles that tend to cloud vision. Debate remains as to whether small or large telescopes are best for light-polluted skies, but most sources agree that the best approach for choosing viewing equipment in an urban environment comes down to personal preferences and abilities. For example, if you live on a high floor and have to carry your telescope all the way down to the ground floor or up to the roof, it’s probably a better idea to use a smaller, portable telescope. If, however, you’ve got a bigger budget and more space in your yard or driveway, then a larger telescope might be a worthwhile investment. If neither of these options is possible, don’t worry: binoculars work well too!

Environment: Darker is better. Try to find a local park with fewer overhead streetlights. If possible, try to avoid viewing from a roof or paved area—these surfaces absorb heat during the day and then radiate heat at night, creating atmospheric turbulence. If you live in a tall apartment building, though, the roof might be your best bet. A very popular solution is to cover yourself in a black cloth, blanket, or cardboard box. This keeps outside light from interfering with the field of vision in your telescope lens.

Timing: Planning ahead also is very helpful. Certain stars and planets will be more or less visible in your area based on the time of day and the time of year, so do your research. The time of day also is crucial. If you can stay up late, the dead of night is a good time for stargazing because many people will have their lights turned out.

Location: Try to avoid viewing through a window, if possible. The glass and temperature difference between interior and exterior can distort your view. You might also cover the back end of your telescope to eliminate any stray light into the lens.

Urban stargazing is not ideal, but with these tips, even the city dweller can enjoy viewing the night sky. Keep these tips in mind next time you’re ready to see what the universe has to offer!

For more information, check out these articles from “Sky and Telescope” and telescope.com!