Star Search: Top Dark Sky Astronomical Sights in 2015

BreakingModern — Relax, we’re not digging up Ed McMahon. Our “star search” is out of this world — literally. If the below video, Chasing Starlight, leaves you eager for more stargazing, you will undoubtedly want tips for seeing stars, planets and meteor showers during the next 12 months.

Video: Chasing Starlight: An Adventure in the Canadian Rockies

Dark Sky Photography

I contacted dark sky photographer Jack Fusco for tips. A dark sky photographer is a nocturnal photographer willing to stay out all night and brave the elements to photograph stars. Multiple pairs of long johns and a well-insulated winter coat and hat are often mandatory — at least in Alberta, Canada, where Fusco shot the above time-lapse video for Travel Alberta last October during Jasper’s annual Dark Sky Festival. Slightly less than 4,000 stills shot in Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper were used to create Chasing Starlight.

Fusco’s favorite sites for learning about astronomy and planning night shoots include:

  • Universe Today is helpful for knowing which planets may be most visible on any given night.
  • Clear Dark Sky provides an astronomer’s forecast and tells you what you might expect to see over the next 48 hours. Fusco also recommends checking Weather.com to see if cloudy or clear skies are likely. Blue blocks designate clear dark skies, gray means it’s cloudy and white blocks mean it’s too cloudy to forecast.
  • Earthsky.org is helpful for finding dark skies because it provides a Light Pollution Map.

Jack-Fusco---Lake-Minnewanka-Star-Trails dark sky

Dark Sky Events

Jack’s two favorite star shows happen in August and October, so let’s take a look at events between January and August first.

January: The Quadrantid meteor shower is the first big event of the year. Unfortunately it only lasts a few hours each night, and this year’s peak on Jan. 4 occurs during an almost full moon. The best spot to see it will be in Northwestern Asia and Eastern Europe.

April: The Lyrid meteor shower occurs from April 16 to 25. Every April, this cosmic event happens when Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Thatcher. During its peak on the night of April 22 and before dawn on April 23, you may see 10-20 meteors per hour. The last time Americans observed 100 Lyrid meteors an hour was in 1982.

July 25-27: The Delta Aquarid meteor shower can be clearly seen across the nighttime sky from late July through early August. Since there is a new moon at the end of July, there should be a good show between midnight and dawn. This overlaps with one of Fusco’s favorites, the Perseid meteor shower.

August 11-13: Along with Fusco, most astronomers believe the Perseid meteor shower may be one of the best dark sky events in 2015. It offers a great light show that can be observed in dark skies without a telescope.

“The peak on Aug. 13 occurs right after a new moon,” Fusco said, “so it should be a very exciting shower. It should be a good show across North America with no moonlight to compete with.”

Fusco thinks he’ll probably head to the desert (Joshua Tree or Death Valley) to observe it.

Since he used to live in New Jersey, I asked Fusco to recommend a good viewing spot on the East Coast. Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania is one of the darkest spots on the East Coast, he said. In 2008, Cherry Springs was designated as an International Dark Sky Park.

August 21-23: Dark Sky Festival in Fort Smith, Northwest Territory and Wood Buffalo National Park will all include a science fair and night sky observation. Wood Buffalo National Park is a designated Dark Sky Preserve.

Oct. 16-24: Dark Sky Festival in Jasper, Alberta. Jasper is the second largest dark sky preserve behind Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. The dates aren’t listed on Jasper’s website yet, but thanks to Fusco we know when the festival will take place. October is an ideal time to view dark skies in Jasper and throughout Alberta, he said.

Jack-Fusco---Lake-Louise-2 dark sky

Dark Sky List

Additional helpful guides to finding the top spots unspoiled by light pollution include the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s list of dark sky preserves in Canada and lists of areas designated as dark sky urban areas, parks and preserves by International Dark Sky.

On its list of International dark sky parks, the following U.S. national and state parks are listed:

  • Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah (the first international dark sky park in 2007)
  • Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania (a Fusco favorite)
  • Goldendale Observatory Park in Washington
  • Clayton Lake State Park and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico
  • Observatory Park in Ohio
  • The Headlands in Michigan
  • Big Bend National Park
  • Copper Breaks State Park and Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in Texas
  • Death Valley National Park in California
  • Oracle State Park and Parashant International Night Sky Province (which includes the Grand Canyon) in Arizona
  • Mayland Community College Blue Ridge Observatory and Star Park in North Carolina

And if you want an app to start star dreaming now, check out the Star Walk gazing guide for iOS, Android and Kindle fire for $2.99 and Windows phone for $2.49. The iOS crowd may also want to grab Vito Technologies’ Star Walk 2: Guide to the Sky Day and Night and/or Star Walk – Kids for $2.99 each. There’s also a Dark Sky meter app for iOS devices to help you measure the amount of light, similar to a camera light meter.  It costs $.99 and you can share dark sky data that you record.

For BMod, I’m .

First/Second image: Jack Fusco

Featured/Header image: © ad_hominem / Dollar Photo Club

Terry Gardner

Author: Terry Gardner

Based in Santa Monica, CA, Terry Gardner is a freelance journalist whose passion for travel, scuba diving and the environment led to a career as a travel journalist. She blogs for various websites, including the Los Angeles Times Travel & Deal blog and Huffington Post. Terry's website is www.terrytravels.com. Her Twitter and Facebook handles are terrytravels1.

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