Have you ever gone outside of your house and looked up at a full sky of stars? Probably not. Most of us live in urban areas – cities, suburbs, and neighborhoods – where it’s hard to see the stars. That doesn’t mean you can’t see the stars at all though.
Enter “urban stargazing” – the notion may seem like an oxymoron. After all, city lights and starlight don’t typically mix. But take heart, city dwellers, for the cosmos is not entirely hidden from your view! With the right approach, urban environments can still provide windows to the celestial wonders that lie beyond the city lights.
Urban stargazing offers its own unique charm and advantages. From the comfort of your rooftop, a quiet street, or a well-placed park, you can still explore the night sky’s highlights. Certain celestial bodies – the moon, the brightest planets, and the most luminous stars – make their presence known even amidst city lights. Additionally, city-based observatories and astronomy clubs offer platforms to learn, while sky mapping apps can guide your gaze to the right corners of the cosmos.
So don’t let the bright lights of the city deter you. Even amid the urban landscape, the universe is at your fingertips. It’s all about knowing where to look and how to make the most of your location. This article covers everything you need to know to start urban stargazing – and be successful in actually seeing objects in the night sky. Grab your telescope, a star map, or simply your curiosity, and join me as we navigate the art of urban stargazing!
What is Urban Stargazing?
A simple definition of urban stargazing is trying to view the night sky from an urban or suburban location, like a city or neighborhood. There are some special considerations to urban stargazing compared to stargazing in a dark sky location outside the city or in the country. In particular, it’s important to understand the phenomena of light pollution, how it affects your stargazing experience, and what steps you can take to improve your view of the night sky when urban stargazing.
Why Can’t You See the Stars in the City?
So why can’t you see the stars in the city? The short answer is: light pollution.
Light pollution is the phenomenon where light is shined in areas where it shouldn’t be – or excess light is allowed to spill out of the area we want lit. For example, shining a light up the side of a building or your house causes light pollution. Street lights which shine onto the surrounding land rather than just on the street or sidewalk also cause light pollution. Gas stations shine extremely bright lights on their property, which spills over into the surrounding area. Spotlights, holiday lights, and most exterior lighting fixtures usually cause light pollution by shining light in every direction.
It may sound like all lights cause light pollution – actually most of the current lights we use do create light pollution.
All of that light illuminates particles in the air; in cities and urban areas, there are typically more particulates like pollution and sometimes moisture in the air. Altogether, this extra light causes the skies above cities to be incredibly bright and literally blocks out the light from most stars. Attempting to stargaze in a light polluted area means you won’t be able to see as many stars as stargazing in a place that’s free of light pollution.
Other Impacts of Light Pollution
Light pollution also has other negative impacts, beyond interfering with our ability to see the stars in the city. Living in a light polluted area has negative physical and psychological impacts on humans: we sleep poorly, are interrupted in our sleep cycles, and suffer emotional distress during the day because we aren’t fully rested.
Animals are impacted too: light pollution causes nocturnal and light-sensitive animals to stay active or behave in ways they wouldn’t in a dark location. Obvious examples include bats, which pollinate plants at night, and sea turtles, which become confused and can head toward city lights instead of toward the sea.
For this reason, organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association work to decrease light pollution and protect naturally dark locations.
How to Go Stargazing in Your City
When you set out to go stargazing in your city or neighborhood, there are some important issues to consider. Taking the following sections into account can help you have a more successful night of stargazing!
1. Check the Weather
This is an obvious tip for stargazing anywhere, but it’s especially relevant in urban settings. In a dark sky location, a small amount of cloud cover (moisture) in the sky probably won’t ruin your view. In an urban setting with light pollution, that moisture will lit up – which is bad for visibility!
Check the weather before you head outside. Try to go urban stargazing on a totally clear night with no cloud cover for the best chance to see the stars.
2. Research What You’ll See
Below, you’ll find a section about the common things you can see while urban stargazing. You can also use a stellarscope or a smartphone app to find the stars visible on the night you plan to go stargazing. (There’s a list of great star apps below too!)
Because you won’t see as many stars while urban stargazing, it’s best to research to understand what you will see, so you don’t feel lost in space when you get out there.
3. Pick the Right Location
Even if you’re not traveling far to try and do some stargazing, location matters. In particular, look for locations where you are shielded from the city lights that are causing that light pollution.
For example, if you live in a place with hills nearby, go on the far side of those hills away from the core of lights in your city or town. If you live in an area with nearby forests, look for forest clearings or fields within the area that use the trees as a shield from the light. Unfortunately, water doesn’t do a great job of cutting down light pollution, so going to the far side of a lake or pond won’t help much.
Use the natural features of the area where you live to create a barrier between your stargazing spot and the light pollution of your city.
4. Setup in the Right Place
Once you pick a location for stargazing, it’s important to take one more step to try and get the best night sky view possible: pick the right place to set up your equipment. Do whatever you can to block line-of-sight light from your eyes and the eyepiece of any equipment you have.
Use anything you can as a barrier between the light and your stargazing spot. If, for example, you’re stargazing in a forest clearing, set up with your back to the source of light pollution – even if that is blocked by the trees. Lights in the parking lot? Set your back to them. If you don’t have any natural way to block the light, consider building a barrier with PVC pipe and black plastic to block the light.
No matter where you are, you want to cut down on the ability for light to impede your view of the night sky and the ability for your eyes to adjust on the dark. If you set up with that in mind, you’ll have a much better chance to see objects in the sky.
5. Bring the Right Equipment
It’s important to bring the right equipment for urban stargazing. While you might think any binoculars or telescope will work, there are special considerations for urban stargazing.
In particular, you’ll want to modify any telescope or binoculars you bring to cut down the impact of light pollution as you look through the atmosphere. There are special filters at different wavelengths that can help with this. Below you’ll find a list of suggested telescopes, binoculars, filters, and other equipment that is ideal for urban stargazing.
Bonus: Attend an Event with a Local Astronomy Club
If you want to get started urban stargazing but don’t want to go through the work of finding a spot or don’t have your own equipment, consider attending a star party with your local astronomy club.
There are astronomy clubs across the world where amateur and professional astronomers get together and bring out their equipment to allow anyone to view the night sky. These ‘star parties’ are a great way to use equipment you might never own, or to see objects you couldn’t find on your own. Star parties are often held in good dark sky locations near cities too, helping you find the right location for the next time you want to go urban stargazing.
What You Can See While Urban Stargazing
Okay, you’re all set. You know where you’re going stargazing on the next clear night… but what will you see? Here’s a quick rundown of the stellar objects you can see while urban stargazing.
Planets in our Solar System
Planets and moons in our solar system are the most easily observed objects you can see. In particular, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter – four of the five visible planets – are all bright enough to see even through light pollution. Under the right conditions, you might also be able to see Uranus or Neptune through a telescope or high-powered binoculars.
You can also take a look at our own moon, which shines brightly most of each month. With even a starter telescope, you can see the craters on the moon! You can also look for the Galilean moons of Jupiter: Europa, Io, Enceladus, and Callisto. The rings of Saturn – while not moons – also show up great with a telescope while urban stargazing.
Comets & Meteors
While you can’t see passing comets or meteor showers on any given night, there are some great opportunities to see both of these space objects while urban stargazing. If you want to try and see a comet, keep an eye out for headlines about comets that will soon be visible.
As for meteors, there are several great meteor showers you can see each year:
- Quadrantids (early January): this short meteor shower usually peaks within a few hours but you can see up to 80 meteors per hour
- Lyrids (late April): this relatively gentle meteor shower peaks in the third week of April at about 10 meteors per hour, but the Lyrids are the first major meteor shower of the year
- Perseids (mid-August): one of the most popular meteor showers of the year, the Perseids hail the height of summer with a peak of 80 meteors per hour
- Draconids (early October): a hit-or-miss meteor shower in early October, a good year for this shower can produce fireballs
- Orionids (late October): a moderate meteor shower, you can see 25-30 meteors per hour during the peak of the Orionids
- Leonids (mid-November): another conservative meteor shower, the Leonids produce about 20 meteors per hour at their peak
- Geminids (mid-December): often skipped due to winter weather and chilly temperatures, the Geminids are the most active meteor shower of the year producing up to 100 meteors per hour
- Ursids (late December): the year ends with a final quiet meteor shower, peaking at about 10 meteors per hour
If you plan to go stargazing on the peak night of these meteor showers, you can see a lot of meteor activity!
Dwarf Planets & Asteroids
Similar to comets, solar system objects like dwarf planets and asteroids are hard to spot and require a fair amount of practice stargazing. We included some of the top opportunities to see these kinds of objects in our 2019 stargazing guide – but you’ll definitely need a telescope to see any of the objects like Haumea or Makemake!
It turns out you can see a lot of galaxies in the sky when you know where to look! Some are too faint to spot under light polluted skies while urban stargazing, but here are some of the candidates you might be able to see:
- The Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31, located in Andromeda)
- The Large & Small Magellanic Clouds (southern hemisphere only)
- The Pinwheel Galaxy (Messier 101, located in Ursa Major)
- The Sombrero Galaxy (Messier 104, located in Virgo)
- The Whirlpool Galaxy (Messier 51, located in Canes Venatici)
- The Leo Triplet (Messiers 65 and 66 and NGC 3628)
Some of these objects are well-placed for viewing in 2019, which we also mention in our 2019 stargazing guide.
It’s possible you may be able to see The Milky Way depending on how dark the skies are in your area. Most cities have way too much light pollution to make this possible, but if you travel a bit out of the city on a clear night with no moon, you may be able to spot our own galaxy!
If you want to see the places where stars are born, look for nebula in the sky. It’s possible to see the Orion Nebula (Messier 42), the Dumbbell Nebula (Messier 27, located in Vulpecula), or the Crab Nebula (Messier 1, located in Taurus). While the Orion Nebula is visible to the unaided eye, it’s best to plan your urban stargazing trip when each of these constellations is high in the sky, to cut down on light pollution and increase your chances to see the nebulae.
Binary Stars & Star Clusters
While you can’t see everything while stargazing near a city, it should be clear now that there’s a lot you can see. Here’s a list of a few more types of objects and a few examples that you might be able to spot at different times of the year.
- The Pleiades star cluster is one of the most recognizable star clusters in the night sky.
- Other open star clusters you can look for include The Beehive Cluster (Messier 44, located in Cancer) and the Double Cluster, NGC 869 & NGC 884 (located in Perseus).
- There are tons of Globular Clusters you can spot under the right conditions including the Hercules Cluster (Messier 13, located in Hercules), Messier 92 (in Cancer), Messier 15 (in Pegasus), Messier 2 (in Aquarius) and Messier 79 (in Lepus).
- Many of the bright stars we can see are actually binary stars or multiple star systems. Stars including Antares (in Scorpius), Capella (in Auriga), Regulus (in Leo) are all actually two stars. Same for Mizar & Alcor in the handle of the Big Dipper/Plough. While stargazing with a telescope, you can separate these binary pairs into their respective stars.
Last but not least, we can’t overlook our own beloved sun! With a solar filter, you can go urban ‘stargazing’ during the day and view the sun. Stay tuned for a future guide to solar viewing.
The Best Equipment for Urban Stargazing
In addition to your eyes and layers to keep warm, there is some additional equipment you can bring when going urban stargazing to help make it a successful night.
Good Telescopes for Urban Stargazing
If you’re going to purchase a telescope for urban stargazing, there are some considerations to keep in mind:
- The aperture of the telescope is the most important factor to help you choose a good telescope that will actually allow you to see things. A rough rule is that the larger the aperture, the more light your telescope can collect and show you. When you’re trying to view distant objects, bigger is better.
- The length of a telescope does not correlate to its value. Many people start out with cheap, long telescopes that don’t do a great job of unlocking your view of the cosmos at all.
- While there are smaller scopes, anything less than 70mm in diameter is not going to be powerful enough to do more than magnify what you can already see with your eyes. In the 80mm-90mm range, you’ll start to see more objects and also get a better view of the planets and stars.
- When first starting out, expect to spend $100-$250 for a good starter telescope.
With that in mind, here are some telescope options:
|21061 AstroMaster 70AZ Refractor Telescope
|Observer 80ST Equatorial Refractor Telescope
|600x90mm AZ Astronomical Refractor Telescope
|21045 Equatorial PowerSeeker EQ Telescope
|Omni XLT 150 Telescope
(Pricing: $ = <$100, $$ = $100-$150, $$$ = $150-$200, $$$$ = $200-$250, $$$$$ = $500+)
Best Stargazing Apps for Urban Stargazing
Using a stargazing app can be really helpful when you’re urban stargazing, as it will help you plan and understand what you might see – and help you spot exactly what you’re looking at once you’re stargazing. Note that it’s a pretty big faux pas to pull out your phone while stargazing, as phones produce a lot of light and mess with our night vision. So peek at your stargazing app in the car once you arrive, then just look at the wonders of the sky above.
- Night Sky – This app uses augmented reality to allow you to see the night sky in any direction you point your phone, plus has information about every object you can see. There are some cool AR/VR paid purchase options too. Free, available in the Apple app store here.
- SkyView® Lite – This app also uses AR to show you objects in the night sky, and has loads of information about everything you can see. Free, available in the Apple app store here. This app is called SkyView® Free in the Google Play store here.
- Star Chart – Similar to other apps, this one uses AR to help you navigate the sky. Free, available in the Apple app store here and the Google Play store here.
- SkySafari – Another AR app for viewing the night sky, this app also has a narrated tour of the sky you can purchase in-app. Free, available in the Apple app store here and the Google play store here.
Other Equipment You Might Need
In addition to a telescope and a star map/app, there are a few other things that are helpful but not necessary for urban stargazing.
- Red Lights – when you’re stargazing, you want to use red lights so your eyes aren’t affected and you can still see in the dark. There are some great, affordable hand-held flashlight options, including this clip-on one and this heavy-duty one, both less than $15.
- Laser Pointer – A handheld green laser pointer can be great for pointing to specific stars (“which one? This one? No, that one!”) Sky & Telescope has a great article about laser pointers and when/how you should use them for stargazing. As a quick reminder: never look directly into the beam of light, and never shine your laser at people/animals, reflective signs/buildings, or airplanes.
- Telescope Filters – If you really want to have the best experience possible, some telescope manufacturers make filters to help reduce light pollution at various wavelengths. Celestron, among others, offers a narrowband filter that can help you more easily spot distant deep space objects more easily.
If you still have questions or want to learn even more about urban stargazing, there’s also a great book Urban Astronomy: Stargazing from Town & Suburbsthat can teach you all you ever wanted to know. Have questions? Email us!
Featured photo credit: GlacierNPS via Flickr