An Amateur’s Guide to Light Polluted Skies
The view of star-lit sky is breathtaking
The night sky is a fascinating place, it has something for everyone. For artists it is a sensual poetry, for astronomers it is a playground of physics and mathematics, for our ancestors it was perhaps everything; before the invention of electricity, moon and stars were the torches of the night, people used the night sky for everything. Weather, harvesting season, rituals and festivals, everything was pretty much decided by the night sky, and you can still see its influence on the cultures around the world. But as we know change is the only permanent thing about the universe, and thus came the decline of the dark skies as humans progressed.
The internet defines light pollution as : The excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial (usually outdoor) light. Too much light pollution has consequences: it washes out starlight in the night sky, interferes with astronomical research, disrupts ecosystems, has adverse health effects and wastes energy.
Turns out it does more than just stripping the night sky of its glory. It’s damaging to many aspects of nature. It changes the dynamics of animal behavior, hampering with nocturnal as well as diurnal animals. For us humans it can lead to sleep disorders and other health problems such as increased headaches, worker fatigue, stress, some forms of obesity due to lack of sleep and increased anxiety.
Light pollution is harmful for both humans and animals
Stargazing in light polluted skies
Stargazing is a beautiful hobby. A hobby which teaches you patience, makes you humble, makes you feel more connected to the cosmos. But as mentioned previously, light pollution has made a serious impact on it. Gone are the pristine dark skies in which it was possible to see distant galaxies and deep sky object without any sophisticated equipment. It is one of the many things taken from us by our own progress but, all hope is not gone; you can still see many beautiful things in this great theater called the night sky, if you are aware and prepared. The great thing about it is that you don’t even need to spend a single penny.
So here is a comprehensive list on do's and don'ts for star gazing in a light polluted area. Let’s dive right in.
Do’s and Don’ts
1. Find a sheltered spot away from the light
Keeping your eyes away from the direct glare of street lights is one of the basic and most important things that you could do. In Fact it should be the first thing that ought to be done. The more time you keep your eyes in darkness the more it is able to see the faint stars distinctly.
Try to pick the darkest spot as in the left side of this picture
2. Start with the easiest (brightest) ones
The faintest(celestial objects) are the most affected by earth light. So your priority should be to spot the brightest one first, as they are easily visible even in a light polluted sky. The rule of thumb is, start with the planets: Jupiter, Saturn are easily visible, Mercury and Venus, only at dusk or dawn, Mars is also seen sometimes, Uranus and Neptune : forget about them. The next in the list are stars and deep sky objects (DSO, rarely visible in light polluted skies), there are many stars and DSO that can be seen, some stars would be Betelgeuse, Sirius, Polaris, Andromeda Galaxy(using binoculars), and many more (see useful resources and links).
All you need to do is prepare beforehand. There are amazing websites and software (see useful resources and links) that would tell you where to look, so use them extensively.
Jupiter as seen with a small binocular ;Credits : Glass_House
3. Use red light if illumination is needed
Oftentimes you would be needing some lights in order to illuminate your surroundings or maybe just to see if you are not stepping on something that you are not supposed to step on! So for these purposes it is advised that you use a red light, red color doesn’t mess much with your eyes(that are adapted to darkness). Therefore, always keep a red light or a torch wrapped with a red plastic sheet with you.
Red flashlight can be used for illumination : Credits: NPS/M.Quinn
4. Keep a sketchbook, if you don’t have a good camera
It is often the case that while stargazing you watch something that is so wonderful that you want to capture it in your camera, but your camera may not be capable of doing it. So for situations like these, keep a notebook with yourself along with a pencil or pen and draw them(you don’t need to be an artist). Also add notes along with it like date and time, weather conditions, location, anything else you find suitable. It could be a great way to keep the night skies with you, and plus you feel like a renaissance astronomer!
Sketches of moon made by Galileo(You don't need to add these much details)
5. Patience, patience
This thing pretty much defines your overall stargazing experience. Even if all the criteria are met there is still a chance that things may not go in your favor, randomness and uncertainty are traits of the universe, so embrace them. Doing it again and again would definitely make your stargazing experience beautiful and fulfilling.
I hope these tips will help you in your stargazing experience! So keep looking up, happy stargazing!
Useful resources and links
https://skyandtelescope.org/interactive-sky-chart/ Interactive star atlas
https://skyandtelescope.org/observing/111-deep-sky-wonders-for-light-polluted-skies/ 111 wonderful things to observe in light polluted night skies
https://www.space.com/39240-when-to-see-planets-in-the-sky.html Detailed guide on naked eye planet observation
https://www.youtube.com/user/spacetelescopevision Tonight’s Sky : an overview of what you can see in the sky in a particular month
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0i3yvVW_38Q Astronomy sketching