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The Earth at Night
The Earth at Night. Ever wonder where all the stars went? Before all those street lights were put up your ancestors had a pretty good view of the night sky. Nowadays you can only see the brightest stars from most cities and the Milky Way is only visible from dark sites out in the country. For more information on how the above image was made see this website. The International Dark Sky Association has more information on light pollution and what you can do to help keep it to a minimum.

Stargazing

The sky is enormous and filled with mysterious and interesting things. We can observe the various wonders of the sky with the aid of telescopes or with the unaided eye. Stargazing allows us to become well acquainted with the positions and sights of the night sky. We view the sky from the Earth, a moving platform that is always changing our specific view. The motion of the Earth around the Sun brings a changing night sky with the passing of the seasons. There are always many interesting features one can observe with the unaided eye.

Learning the constellations is a great way to pass a clear evening. Starting with the brightest stars and the clearest formations, we can learn to spot constellations such as the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), or Orion the Hunter, constellations that have been familiar to humanity throughout its history. The sky has been mapped, and if you learn the patterns of the stars, you will never feel lost when staring into the vastness of the night sky.

The planets, the "wanderers" of the sky, move around the sky in front of that background of stars. They can be tracked with current maps available online or in popular astronomy magazines. Some planets move faster than others, but all move through the same constellations (more or less) as the Sun. This path across the sky is called the ecliptic, and all of the constellations of the Zodiac are in this path.

Meteor showers are a special treat for any stargazer. The Leonids in November 2001 showed us a display of fiery streaks across the sky for hours in the early morning. There are several annual meteor showers caused by Earth moving through the orbit of a comet that has left much debris in its wake, though nearly every clear night, with enough patience, one can see a handful of meteors streaking through the blackness.

Comets, the "dirty snowballs" that orbit around the Sun and sometimes are deflected in their orbit to pass close enough to the Earth to be seen, are another rare sight we can enjoy without telescopes. Halley's comet is the only really bright comet that returns toward Earth often enough for most everyone to have a chance to see it at least once. It returns every 76 years. Its last pass was in 1986.

Deep space objects, outside of our own galaxy, are nearly impossible to see without a telescope. One big exception is M31, the Andromeda galaxy, located in the constellation Andromeda. If you can locate this fuzzy luminous patch in the sky, you are looking at our galactic neighbor. It's the most distant object one can see with the unaided eye.

The Ask an Astronomer team's favorite links about Stargazing:

  • Heavens Above. This free site allows you to enter your location and creates customized star charts for you. It also shows information on how you can see the ISS and other artificial satellites.
  • Sky at a Glance: Find out what stars, planets and other objects are visible in the night sky from Sky and Telescope Magazine.
  • Telescope review web site: A detailed review of over 100 telescopes for amateurs.
  • Sky View: An on-line virtual observatory with a special non-astronomer interface. View pictures of objects in the night sky in many wavelenghts.
  • U.S. Naval Observatory Data Services: Easy to use web forms which provide data on the positions of the sun, moon and other celestial objects.

Previously asked questions about Stargazing:

General questions:

Technical questions:

Planet watching:

Moon watching:

Meteor showers and shooting stars:

Professional observers:

Constellations:

Galaxies:

Comets:

How the motion of the Earth affects our view:

How to ask a question:

If you have a question about Stargazing which isn't answered above, submit it here. If you have a question about another area of astronomy, find the topic you're interested in from the archive on our site menu, or go here for help.

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