If you’re a beginner backyard astronomer, whether you’re into stargazing by the campfire or looking at the moon and planets through your telescope, at some point, you’re bound to want to pinpoint the best time for stargazing for a group or individual experience. Let’s investigate.
As long as we’ve existed, humans have looked toward the night sky with wonderment. In the distant past, we did so while seated around campfires or sitting on our backs and gazing skyward – and, of course, that’s still an option today.
Since Copernicus and Galileo and the advent of the telescope, however, we can now get a much closer look at the stars, planets, constellations, and everything in between.
When’s the best time for stargazing?
The best time for stargazing depends, first, on what you’re aiming to see or study, that is, whether it’s certain constellations, planets, the Milky Way, Moon features, or passing comets. For moon viewing, you’ll want the full moon phase or near to it. For planets and other celestial objects, the best time is a dark sky, with no moon illumination, and at a phase when they are closest to Earth and then, it depends on having ideal atmospheric conditions.
When it comes to stargazing, the best time of the year and evening can make a huge difference to your experience.
When starting out, you may be prone to think that any time between nightfall and sunrise (nighttime) is a good time for stargazing… That stargazing opportunities abound any night of the year. But that’s not the case…as you soon learn.
1. Best Moon Phase For Stargazing
Moon time (or Moon phase) makes a difference in stargazing.
It’s only a Paper (Full) Moon
Even if you’re only an amateur stargazer, you know that the moon “changes” insofar as it goes through its lunar cycle of waxing and waning. We’ve known this for thousands of years. Juliet begs Romeo “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon” with all its “monthly changes…Lest that thy love prove likewise variable” – but what do the moon’s monthly phases mean for your stargazing opportunities?
At first, you might be tempted to think that the moon is good when it comes to stargazing. After all, it’s nice and bright, and it separates from the artificial light of cityscapes that can severely cloud your vision.
However, the longer you look, the more you realize that great as it may be on its own, a full Moon poses a similar problem to city lights insofar as it can make it difficult to see other objects in the night sky.
While it may be a natural source of light, the Moon reflects a great deal of illumination, and because it’s so close to us (compared to the stars on an astronomical level), it overrides the brightness of other celestial objects.
Having said that, the full Moon phase or leading up to it or away from it, can be the best time to zoom in on the features of the Moon with binoculars or even a cheap telescope. You’ll see not only craters, but rilles, mountains, valleys, and maria, unlike anything on Earth.
So if not during a full moon, when?
While the phrases Twilight and New Moon may evoke bad Bella Swann-induced memories, those times are actually among the best to get the best view of the sky and stars above.
During a new moon and in the days immediately before and after, the moon is at its mildest. The moon does not emit light, true, but reflects it, and at these times in the lunar cycle it reflects less light, causing it to appear dimmer. This means that you don’t have to contend with that light when trying to view the constellations and galaxies.
Without question, when stargazing to see details of planets or other night sky phenomena (apart from the Moon) the best time during the lunar cycle is at this point just before and after and especially during a new moon.
Even without a telescope, when traveling to an area free of light pollution (like the woods) during and around a new moon, you should be able to see thousands of stars.
2. Best season for stargazing
Now we’re talking about Earth time.
Summer vs Winter
On the one hand, you probably have more free time during the summer months for stargazing. On the other hand, what you actually see may not be as compelling.
How can the season affect the quality of your stargazing experience?
Days are longer in the summer, which means it takes longer to get darker and it brightens up sooner. This leaves you with far less time where the skies are sufficiently dark for ideal stargazing.
Autumn, winter, and spring all offer better times. The peak being between October and March in the Northern Hemisphere, when the clocks go back for countries that observe Daylight Savings Time – which includes the US, Canada, UK, most of the EU.
This is when many of the most popular stargazing events take place. By contrast, many observatories actually close down during parts of the summer because the times during which the sky is dark enough to make anything visible enough to guests is so limited and so late at night as to be commercially unfeasible.
Not only is there longer nights, but these seasons outside of summer offer drier air conditions meaning clearer night skies for viewing. The cooler months are generally better because of less heat haze and moisture in the air.
So the ideal seasons for stargazing are autumn, winter, and spring, which, as a collective, are often referred to in astronomy circles as the ‘observing season”.
This is the same whether you are in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere.
Best time for stargazing – Northern vs Southern Hemisphere
In Jan 2020 Mercury offered better views for observers in the Northern Hemisphere (mid-winter) than for those in the Southern Hemisphere (mid-summer).
Editor of in-the-sky.org explains: “Because the seasons are opposite in the northern and southern hemispheres, a good apparition of Mercury in one hemisphere will usually be badly placed in the other”
The above is just an example, making the point that determining the best time for stargazing can differ with where you are located. It’s best to check night sky viewing resources to find the best time for stargazing in this respect also.
Additional stargazing tips
While the above cover the basics, some other stargazing tips can help illuminate the experience all the more:
- For starters, make use of technology. Sky Maps and apps such as Stellarium can allow you to view the night sky and inform you of upcoming celestial events.
- Before you invest in a telescope, try starting out with some binoculars. They’re far less expensive and, with the viewing times and tips mentioned here, can help you see a fair amount. (See also our article of 10+ uses of binoculars in astronomy).
- Once you do get a telescope, using a red flashlight as a light source helps to avoid light affecting your eyes and clouding your view of the sky.
- Height helps, so seek out an elevated space from which to view space itself.
By following these tips and stargazing at the right times, you can maximize your chances of seeing something truly out of this world.