Live in the City? Go Stargazing!

the view of orion from the city and the country
The constellation Orion shown from a dark-sky sight (left) and a city area (around Provo, UT, right). Jeremy Stanley, via Wikimedia, CC 2.0.

Stargazing in the city? Why not?  Just because someone lives in an urban environment doesn't mean they can't do a little sky observing. Sure, it's a bit tougher because of bright lights and overall light pollution, but it can be done. 

Most articles about stargazing recommend finding a good, dark-sky observing site. But for someone living in the city, who can't get to a dark-sky "reservations", it's tempting to just stay inside and look at the stars on a computer screen. However, it turns out, there are ways to do some city observing, despite the problems posed by light pollution. Much of the world's population lives in or near cities, so enthusiastic city stargazers can and do find ways to do back-yard or rooftop observing. 

Explore the Solar System

The Sun, Moon, and planets are readily accessible because they're bright. The Sun is an obvious choice, but observers do need to take some strict precautions. NEVER look directly at the Sun with the naked eye and especially NOT through binoculars or a scope that don't have solar filters.

If an observer has a telescope equipped with a solar filter, then they can look at it through the eyepiece, to see the sunspots and any prominences that might be moving up from the Sun's surface.  As it turns out, however, there's a very low-tech way to see sunspots without filters. Here's how it works: let the Sun shine through the telescope, and direct the bright light onto a white wall or a piece of paper. The observer gets to see sunspots without burning their eyes out. In fact, a number of successful sunspot observers use this method all the time. That method also makes it very easy to sketch sunspots since all the observer has to do is direct the view onto paper and then trace what is projected.

Checking out the Moon

The Moon is also a great target for city viewing. Watch it night after night (and in the daytime during part of the month), and chart how its appearance changes. It's possible to explore its surface with binoculars, and get really finely-detailed views with a good telescope. One popular pastime is to explore all the large basins and craters on the surface.  Another one is to look for mountains and cracks on the surface. 

Seeing Planets from the City

The planets are also good targets for city skygazers. The rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter are popular targets. Plus, they show up well in binoculars or a telescope. There are good observing guides to the planets in the pages of Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, SkyNews magazines, as well as many sources online in other languages. A digital astronomy program or app, such as StarMap 2 or Stellarium also provide precise positions of the Moon and planets in the sky. 

The Deep Sky From the Big City

Unfortunately, many people who live in light-polluted areas have never (or rarely) seen the Milky Way. During a power outage, there's a chance of seeing it from the city, but otherwise, it can be very difficult to spot unless they can get a few miles outside of town. 

But, all is not lost. There are some deep-sky objects that city dwellers can try to find. They just need to get out of the way of lights. One trick that many urban observers use is to stay up after midnight when some building owners turn off their outside lights. That might allow a view of such things as the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades star cluster, and some of the brighter star clusters.

Other tricks for city observers:

  • Find places to observe from that are shielded from bright nearby lights, such as a corner of a porch, the top of a roof and next to a wall, or from a balcony;
  • Some put a blanket over their heads and their telescopes to block out the direct light;
  • City astrophotographers take long-exposure images of deep sky objects;
  • Use good star chats that help a skygazer "hop" from star to star as you search out a cluster or a nebula. 

Ask the Locals

Local planetarium theaters often offer stargazing shows, where people can learn the night sky.  They might also have classes for stargazers, so check out the nearby facilities to see what they offer. They are often found in science centers, but also at universities and some school districts offer public access from time to time.

Amateur astronomer groups in and near big cities often have observing nights where people can gather with others to do some sky exploration. For example, in New York City, the Friends of the High Line organization have weekly observing sessions from April through October. Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles holds star parties each month, and its telescope is available each week for a peek at the heavens. These are just two of many, many stargazing activities in towns and cities. Also, don't forget the local college and university observatories—they often have observing nights, too.

The city might seem like the least likely place to catch a glimpse of the stars, but in cities from downtown New York to Shanghai to Bombay and beyond, people can still often see the brightest stars and planets. It may be a challenge, but the rewards are worth it.