Live in the City? You Can Still Stargaze

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Do you think that because you live in a city or town, you can't stargaze from your neighborhood? Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Under the right conditions, its possible to spot stars and planets from many urban areas. 

Most articles about stargazing recommend finding a good, dark-sky observing site. But if you live in the city and don't have access to nearby dark-sky "reservations", you might be tempted to just stay inside and look at the stars on your computer screen.

Turns out, there are ways you can 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 find ways to do back-yard or rooftop observing. Here are some ideas for you to try out if you're itching to do a little observing.

Explore the Solar System

The Sun, Moon, and planets are readily accessible to you. Observing the Sun should only be done with proper filters and you should never look directly at the Sun with the naked eye (or through binoculars or a telescope). That being said, you can use a telescope to check out sunspots (which are part of our Sun's activity) simply by letting the Sun shine through the telescope, out the eyepiece and onto a white wall or a piece of paper. A number of successful sunspot observers use this method all the time. If you have a telescope equipped with a solar filter, then you can look at it through the eyepiece, to see the sunspots and any prominences that might be moving up from the Sun's surface.

 

The Moon is also 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. You can explore its surface with binoculars, and get really finely-detailed views with a good telescope.

The planets are also good targets. The rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter show up well in binoculars or a telescope.

You can find observing guides to the planets in the pages of Astronomy, Sky & Telescope, SkyNews magazines, as well as many sources online in other languages. If you have a digital astronomy program or app, such as StarMap or Stellarium, these will also show you the positions of the Moon and planets.

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 you can get a few miles outside of town. 

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

Other tricks for city observers:

  • Find places 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.
  • Drape a blanket over your head and your telescope to block out direct light.
  • If you're an astrophotographer, you can take long-exposure images of deep sky objects.
  • Make sure you have good star charts that can help you "hop" from star to star as you search out a cluster or a nebula. 

Check out your local planetarium and amateur astronomer groups in and near big cities. They often have observing nights where you can gather with others to do some sky exploration.For example, in New York city, the Friends of the High Line organization in New York City 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 your 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 even from downtown New York or Shanghai, you can still often see the brightest stars and planets. Make it your goal (wherever you live) to find out what you can see from your local park or apartment fire escape.