By Whitney Childers
How to See the Milky Way
Take a long look at the vastness of the universe during a picturesque dark sky night and you may be homesick for a home you never knew you had
Eighty percent of Americans live in an area where they cannot see the Milky Way galaxy due to the light pollution from the cities. This is not the case in Utah, which is uniquely hospitable for stargazing thanks to the dry climate, higher elevations and a whole lot of emptiness — places that are void of urban centers.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that so many of us are drawn to look toward the Milky Way, whether it’s simply to soak in its beauty or be changed in a way that is truly transformative.
The night sky connects us all in a way that is deeper than we understand. We feel so tiny in comparison to the Milky Way, but we’re also very much a part of it.
The great advantage to astrotourism is that it doesn’t depend on seasonality. You can see night or dark skies throughout the year. From our northern hemisphere viewpoint, the Milky Way core (or bulge) is always generally south on the horizon. However, the orientation of the galaxy differs throughout the year.
Of course, you’ll want to take note of the weather and avoid nights where cloud cover is prevalent or potential storms are on the horizon.
Summer: We see more of the Milky Way, its center, and the highest concentration of stars combining for the most luminous of views during the summer. Looking low on the southern horizon is the constellation of Sagittarius, and its brightest stars make a teapot shape, noted Foott, with the Milky Way rising as steam from the spout.
Winter: In the winter months, we are looking toward the outside edge of the galaxy, with fewer stars that are less intense and more subtle. Winter is a wonderful time of year to experience stargazing in part because it’s kinder to the non-night owls. There are more hours of darkness as the sun goes down earlier in the day and Utah’s typical dry winter air also allows for clearer viewing.
The central part of the Milky Way — the galactic core — shines nightly from March to November.
March–May: First visible a few hours before sunrise
June–August: As soon as the sun sets, for most of the night
September–November: Best seen in the early evening
November–February: Not visible in the northern hemisphere
Time of month: Plan your stargazing during a new moon or within three days before or three days after. A new moon occurs when it is located between Earth and the sun. The moon is thus not visible from Earth, resulting in dark skies that are ideal to see the Milky Way and the faintest of celestial objects and phenomenon (details in dustlines of the galaxy, fainter light against a dark background, etc.) Any light from the moon will wash out the night sky.
Time of night: Foott said the Milky Way is most clearly seen during true night, after the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon — typically an hour to an hour-and-a-half after sunset. During the northern hemisphere’s summer months, that’s after 10 p.m. And the longer you stay up, the more intense the sky becomes with stars beaming as the night gets darker.
The beauty of stargazing is that it’s simple to prepare for and experience. Check Utah’s local weather for temperatures after sunset and be prepared with warmer clothing, comfortable folding camping chairs or a blanket to lounge upon, some snacks and water. Foott is a big proponent of viewing the Milky Way with the naked eye, but to enhance your experience bring along a pair of binoculars or easy-to-transport telescope.
There are numerous apps that assist in helping to identify constellations and stars, which come in night mode as to not ruin your eyes’ adjustment to the darkness. And, if you bring along a flashlight or headlamp, make sure it has a red light for night vision.
Utah, part of The Great Western Starry Way of the Intermountain West, is lucky to boast among the highest concentration of stellar dark parks and communities in the world. From a quick drive from Salt Lake City to Antelope Island to a multi-day excursion deep in southeastern Utah, numerous options await stargazers seeking to view pristine and beautiful dark skies.
If you want to go a bit deeper to learn mythology or point to constellations and view the deep sky through a powerful telescope, it may be necessary to attend a star party or guided program. Visit the websites for Utah’s state and national parks to easily find upcoming events, which typically include a ranger- or interpretative-led talk. Astrological societies and astronomy clubs across the state also host star parties as enthusiasts bring along their telescopes and amazing knowledge.
“As humans, we’ve been looking up in awe at the night sky as long as humans have been here. It’s innate within us to lay out under the stars and enjoy ourselves and have a wonderful time — it can be life-changing,” said Foott.