Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Here’s How to Marvel at the Milky Way Without a Telescope Until July 13

You’ve almost certainly seen photos of the Milky Way, usually taken by photographers who travel way out into the middle of nowhere to get them. They’re cosmically beautiful, colorful and timeless. Now, for a brief period, it’s possible for you to catch a direct glimpse of the Milky Way. 

The Milky Way — no, not the candy bar — is Earth’s home galaxy. NASA describes it as “a spiral galaxy with a disk of stars spanning more than 100,000 light years,” and the space agency notes that Earth is located along one of the galaxy’s spiral arms, about halfway from the center. Our solar system takes about 240 million years to complete a single orbit of the Milky Way.  Even though we’re part of the Milky Way, we can sometimes see the central disk of it arcing across the sky, looking like a “faint, milky band of light,” NASA notes.

Earth is right in the thick of the proverbial action, which means the Milky Way is visible between February and October, or most of the year. However, the majority of the US has a chance to see it only for a grand total of about a dozen days across four months, depending on one’s location.

The first two weeks of July are a prime time to catch a glimpse of our cosmic neighborhood. Once July 13 comes and goes, you’ll have to wait until early August to try again.

Spotting the Milky Way isn’t nearly as rare as spotting solar eclipses or planet parades, but it’s arguably harder in most ways. Where eclipses and planet parades are fairly visible from the backyard of anyone who’s within the path of the event, the Milky Way is fairly difficult to see from many populated parts of the US. In short, you may want to plan a road trip out to the middle of nowhere in order to see it properly. 

When can I see the Milky Way?

The exact dates differ from region to region, but the Milky Way should be visible across the entire US around the same set of days. For you to be able to see the Milky Way, the sky has to be pretty dark. The best times to see it are the five days before and five days after a new moon. July’s new moon takes place the evening of July 5 and the morning of July 6, so that sets the date range to see the Milky Way. Once the moon reaches about 50% brightness, which happens on July 13, the Milky Way becomes much more difficult to spot until the next new moon. 

It’ll be visible for several days before and after the new moon, while the moon is at the end of its waning phase and the beginning of its waxing phase. Thus, while July 6 is undoubtedly the best day, you can still see the MIlky Way for about a week after that. 

The Milky Way also won’t be visible all night. There’s only about a three to six hour window when you’ll be able to see it. Again, that’ll vary depending on your location. Based on the region, here’s when the Milky Way can best be spotted. All times are local to that region, and these times are specifically for the evening of July 5 going into July 6.

  • Pacific Northwest: 11:35 p.m. to 2:55 a.m. (three hours and 20 minutes)

  • West Coast: 10:17 p.m. to 4:06 a.m. (five hours and 49 minutes)

  • Southwest: 10:45 p.m. to 4:25 a.m. (five hours and 42 minutes)

  • Midwest: 10:32 p.m. to 3:37 a.m. (five hours and five minutes)

  • South: 10:13 p.m. to 5:02 a.m. (six hours and 49 minutes)

  • East Coast: 10:54 p.m. to 3:35 a.m. (four hours and 41 minutes)

The further south and east you go, the more time you’ll have to see and photograph the Milky Way. People in those areas will also be able to see more of the Milky Way than folks in regions further north and west. But that said, almost everyone in the US will get to see the Milky Way for at least three hours. 

People on the West Coast and in the Southwest, Midwest and the southern US will be able to view the Milky Way up through July 13 without much issue for a similar amount of time every night at around the same times. Start and end times and the total duration may vary by about half an hour.

Where can I see the Milky Way?

Virtually the entire northern hemisphere will be able to see the MIlky Way, provided they’re in the right environment. The hard part is getting into that environment. Because this is a celestial event, a lot of the same logic and reasoning that applies to other astrological events applies here as well. The closer you are to cities and major light sources, the more difficult it’s going to be to see anything. 

To see the Milky Way, you’re going to want to travel as far away from light pollution as you can. Light pollution describes the phenomenon where human-made lighting artificially increases the brightness of the night sky. The artificial light drowns out most celestial bodies that you’d normally be able to see with the naked eye. That’s why the sky looks so much more robust out in the middle of nowhere compared with inside a major metropolitan area. 

LightPollutionMap.info has a fantastic map that shows light pollution across the US. You’ll notice that areas like Nevada, Utah and other states in that region have very low light pollution. That’s why so many good Milky Way photos are taken in the desert. There are no lights there. Dark Site Finder also has some useful tools for locating a sufficiently dark spot in your general area. 

Getting to higher elevations also helps, though a change in elevation of a few hundred feet won’t matter much. Going from sea level to a place like Arches National Park, Utah — which is over 5,000 feet in elevation — does make a fairly significant difference. According to NASA, traveling to higher elevations means you’ll be above the denser air and ground-level obstructions like fog, giving you an even clearer look at the sky.

So, in short, you’ll want to be in the darkest and highest possible place in your area to give yourself the best shot at seeing the Milky Way. 

What will I need to see the Milky Way?

The Milky Way is readily visible without the use of a telescope or high-powered binoculars. But if you have them, magnification devices will let you get a closer look at various points of interest. It’s a big galaxy, and there’s a lot to see, should you want to take a closer look.

Your most important tools are darkness and elevation. Without those, you won’t be able to see the Milky Way at all. Tote along a good camera with a tripod. Photographs taken with longer exposures can capture more light than the human eye can see, and photos can be edited later to make them look extra good. 

Aspiring photographers looking to get an awesome shot of the Milky Way need only follow a couple of general rules. You’ll want a fast lens. The lower the f-stop the better. From there, you’ll want a long exposure time, a sturdy tripod that won’t move, and enough patience to get the focus right, since stars don’t provide cameras with a lot of contrast for the auto focus to function. After that, it’s just a matter of dialing in your camera’s settings. 

Mark your calendar for Milky Way sighting options

There are two good resources to use to find the best dates for Milky Way sightings. The first is any moon calendar (Time and Date has one that’s relatively easy to read) to determine when a new moon is coming out between February and November. The less light the moon gives out, the easier it is to see the sky around it. 

Based on that data, the last few days of July and the first week of August will be the next good opportunity to see the Milky Way. After that, it’ll be the last few days of August and the first week of September. 

Another useful tool is a Milky Way calendar. The website Capture the Atlas makes them every year and emails them for free to interested users. The website has an email signup form. Once you sign up, it emails a list of calendars based on latitude. From there, use Google Maps to ascertain your latitude and then use the Milky Way calendar closest to where you are. 

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