As the warmer summer months get closer, many people are contemplating where they might spend their vacation. If you're thinking of stargazing, the very best place you can go is a state or national park
The vast majority of people reside in big cities and their immediate suburbs. In those locations, it is all but impossible to see the night sky in all of its grandeur.
Air pollution has made Earth's atmosphere less transparent and more reflective, and high levels of terrestrial illumination have squelched visibility of a myriad of faint stars by creating a bright background light resembling a perpetual twilight — a phenomenon known as "sky glow." So how, then, can you see the night sky in all its glory? Here are some tips for how to see the unadulterated night sky this summer. [The Best Night-Sky Events of 2016: What to Watch for This Year]
Visit a national park
City dwellers are often accustomed to seeing washed-out or murky night skies over their hometowns. So, when these urbanites are suddenly exposed to a dark, clear and starry backdrop, they are dazzled by the display of stars above their campsites. Many Americans, for example, have never seen the Milky Way, so it is not unusual to hear visitors to an isolated campsite ask, "What is that bright strip in the sky at night?"
Others might simply exclaim, "It looks just like when we visited the planetarium!"
2016 is a rather auspicious year for the National Park Service: It will turn 100 years old on Aug. 25. The National Park Service was created as part of the Organic Act of 1916. The new agency's mission as the manager of national parks and monuments was clearly stated:
"....to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
The National Park Service website provides descriptions of all of the national parks, as well as a state-by-state listing of their locations.
Dark Sky Parks
In March 2007, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) bestowed National Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah, 275 miles (443 kilometers) from Bryce Canyon, with the honor of being designated as its very first Dark Sky Park. Such a designation goes to a selected piece of land "possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment."
Or, as astronomer Christian Luginbuhl from the U.S. Naval Observatory station in Flagstaff, Arizona, said in an article in The New Yorker: "In plain English, it's the darkest or starriest sky they [the IDA] have seen while doing these reviews."
Today, there are more than 30 Dark Sky Parks worldwide and more than 20 of these are in the United States.(The numbers are changing regularly as more Dark Sky Parks are added).
Here is the complete list, including upcoming special events at Dark Sky places.
Best times to visit
If you wish to experience the darkest skies possible, pick a time when the brightness of the moon won't hinder your view of fainter objects. Generally speaking, the time frame roughly between first quarter and last quarter phase is not too good, because the moon will be quite bright and in the sky for much of the night. A first-quarter or waxing-gibbous moon will be in the sky during convenient evening hours and on into the first few hours after midnight, not leaving the sky until just before the break of dawn. Conversely, a waning-gibbous or last-quarter moon will show up a few hours after dusk and will light up the sky for the rest of the night.
Here are the time frames this summer that will provide the best views of a dark, starlit sky with little or no interference from bright moonlight: June 26-30, July 1-9, July 27-31, Aug. 1-9, Aug. 26-31 and Sept.1-8.
Do your part: volunteer
Because many visitors are often curious about the heavens when the visit national parks, the National Park Service has added sky-interpretation talks to many of its traditional nature programs.
The sky-interpretation talks require a ranger or volunteer familiar with astronomy. If you happen to be qualified to talk to the public about astronomy and stargazing, you might consider volunteering to give one of these sky-interpretation talks.
Back in August 2007, my family and I visited Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah. It was there that I connected with Chad Moore, the program director of the National Park Service's Night Sky Team. I offered my service as a sky interpreter, and he told me that the upcoming weekend would likely be very busy, with the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower due late Sunday night.
Sure enough, that Sunday evening, about 200 people, including many kids, showed up outside the visitor center, where telescopes of various sizes had been set up in the parking lot. I was introduced to the visitors and, under a beautiful starlit sky, spent about an hour pointing out the prominent summertime constellations, periodically interrupted by "oohs" and "ahhs," as Perseids streaked across the sky. After I had finished, I spent another hour answering questions ranging from why Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status, to queries about comets and meteors, to whether Mars or any of the other planets in our solar system could harbor life. I had a marvelous time. I highly recommend it to other astronomy enthusiasts who have time and knowledge of the sky to share.
If you wish to volunteer time (whether one evening or the whole summer), contact the superintendents of the park you are interested in, and outline the activity you would like to conduct. Usually, special lectures can be scheduled in well-equipped amphitheaters, and telescopes can be set up in parking lots. Many parks welcome experienced amateur astronomers who can advise naturalists on how to present the sky to the public.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer's Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.