Urban Stargazing: How to Stargaze in the City

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. Nearby Moons 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: 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! Galaxies 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: 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! Nebulae 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, … Continue reading Urban Stargazing: How to Stargaze in the City