Winter landscapes offer a wonderful air of clarity and peacefulness that the summer months just can’t match! In those moments when winter storms aren't blowing, the world is quiet and the air is crisp and clear, which are the perfect conditions for some winter stargazing! Here is our handy guide to winter stargazing so you can enjoy the peacefulness of Earth and all that lies beyond it!
What Are the Best Conditions For Winter Stargazing?
Many say that crisp winter nights provide some of the best opportunities for stargazing, and they are certainly right! But why? Unlike hazy, humid summer nights, winter air doesn’t hold as much humidity, meaning the skies are clearer and there's higher visibility!
Not all winter nights are perfect for stargazing, however! Say you step out for a night of stargazing and see the sky full of twinkling stars. You're excited to see these sparkling beauties through your telescope! Unfortunately, you won't be able to! The vision of twinkling stars is caused by an occurrence called scintillation, which is turbulence in the upper parts of the atmosphere that causes stars to appear distorted, or look like they are “boiling” or quivering, when viewed through a telescope. This is less than ideal for some prime winter stargazing! So when is the best time to get a clear view?
Scintillation happens just after a storm has passed through, so if you’ve received a good amount of snow and wind, expect those upper reaches of the atmosphere to be turbulent! Wait a few days after the storm has passed, and a dome of high pressure will move in, bringing clear skies and reduced wind with it! This is the ideal time to get out in the wintry night and get a clear view of the stars! Even if you think that the conditions don’t look ideal, keep in mind that even days with some haze have surprisingly great views for stargazing!
It’s hard to tell just by looking outside how clear of a view you’ll get of the wintry night sky, so keep an eye on the weather reports! You’ll get a better idea of the wind patterns, and will know if or when a storm will be on its way! You can also use this super handy tool from Environment Canada, which gives hourly updates of forecasts for transparency, cloud movement, and overall viewing conditions for the next 48 hours!
Other Tips and Tricks For Stargazing
Perhaps one of the most important things to remember about winter stargazing is to dress appropriately for the weather! Chances are, it’s going to be pretty cold out, so make sure to wear a sturdy coat with a hood, snow or ski pants, warm footwear and socks, and be sure to dress in layers for optimal warmth!
Get Away From City Lights
The harshness and light pollution caused by city lights definitely reduces the visibility of an otherwise beautiful night’s sky! The farther you get from the city, the better visibility you’ll have! If you live in the countryside, make sure that your outside lights are shut off so they don’t hinder your gazing!
Let Your Eyes Adjust
When you first get out to your stargazing spot, let your eyes fully adjust to the darkness before you start viewing! This way you’ll be able to see your celestial subjects a lot more clearly!
Bring Along a Red Flashlight
Every good astronomer knows that a red lens flashlight is ideal for reading your star charts while stargazing! The bright white light of a regular flashlight will mess up your eyes, which should be well adjusted to the darkness in order to see properly! If you don’t want to invest in a red flashlight just yet, cover the lens of a regular flashlight with red cellophane, plastic, or even a red balloon and your eyes will thank you!
Bring Along Some Equipment
Although stargazing with the naked eye is breathtaking, you’ll probably want to bring along some sort of equipment to help you see more clearly! If you’re new to stargazing, a set of binoculars is a good place to start! They’ll give you a more amplified view, and can be fairly inexpensive! If you like stargazing and want to get more serious about it, invest in a telescope for even better views!
Bring Along a Star Chart
Of course stars are beautiful, but knowing what you’re looking at makes the whole experience even more fun! Bring a star chart along with you so you can map out what you're seeing above you! This will open up a whole new world, so to speak, of astrological knowledge so you can track patterns in the night sky and enjoy some of the most beautiful wonders of space!
Objects To Look For
The winter brings with it some unique positions of stars, constellations, planets, and other objects! Use your star chart to help map these great sights!
The Northern Lights
If you’re stargazing from a northern location, you may be lucky enough to be able to view the radiant display of the Northern Lights! You won’t need a telescope for this! Our wonderful state of Michigan has some prime locations for viewing this awe-inspiring phenomena, mostly along the northern portion of the Upper Peninsula, or at Headlands International Sky Park near Mackinaw City!
Gemini and Messier 35
Winter is prime time for viewing the lovely Gemini constellation! Look to the east, almost directly overhead, and you’ll get a good look at Pollux and Castor, the Gemini Twins! Keep your eyes peeled for M35, which is a cluster of over 200 stars located in the Gemini Constellation!
Sirius the Dog Star
Not only is Sirius the brightest star of the Canis Major constellation, it’s the fifth-closest star to Earth! Look to the southeast portion of the sky and you won’t be able to miss this bright blue wonder! If you’re lucky, you might even be able to get a glimpse of Sirius B, also called “The Pup,” which is a white dwarf star that orbits Sirius and is about one ten-thousandth as bright!
The International Space Station
Sure, this isn’t a star, but as an amateur stargazer, it’s an awesome thing to keep an eye out for and can help you practice your mapping of the sky! Visit NASA’s website and find your location to get sighting times and locations!
Ready to get out there and experience the wonder of winter’s wondrous starry night sky? This handy guide to winter stargazing will help get you on the right track so you can enjoy this amazing new hobby! Do you have any other tips for amateur winter stargazers? Comment and share your advice, prime viewing locations, favorite stars, or any other useful information!