To observe the Milky Way you do not need to be an astronomer or own a telescope, In this article I give you the essentials for chasing and enjoying the Milky Way yourself.
To know when the Milky Way (MW) can be seen, we have to understand the cycle. Just like the Moon has phases predicted by its rotation around the Earth and Earth's own rotation around the Sun, the position of the Galactic Center, or core, also follows a cycle. The core is the part of the MW that we are most interested on.
While technically the MW is always present (we live inside of it!), the core is only visible during the dark hours of what we call the "Milky Way season". In the Northern Hemisphere, the season goes from late February to late October.
Just like the Sun rises on the east and sets on the west, so does the Galactic center, it always rises on the southeastern horizon in an almost horizontal position. A few hours later, it will reach a vertical position before disappearing over the southwestern horizon tipping to the right side. It moves like a clock hand so if you are facing the south, the core rises at your 10ish and sets at your 2ish.
These images show how the position of the core moves in time
Image 1: Taken in Alabama Hills CA on May/30/2022 around 11pm PDT
Image 2: Taken in Mt Rainier, WA on Jul/5/2022 around 1am PDT
Image 3 Taken in Grand Teton, WY on July/9/2021 around 2am MST
I should mention that our eyes do not see the same way the camera sees; Our brain processes between 30-60 frames per second. In most images here, the camera captured 10-15 seconds of information per frame. Our eye won't be able to detect the colors and it might at first appear as a cloud but do not be discouraged because once you start seeing, it is an amazing show!
Be aware of the impact of light: The light of the Sun and the Moon will determine how much of the core you can see. Because of that, it is recommended going out when there's New Moon or the days around it. By the same token, avoid the 2 hours after sunset and the 2 hours before sunrise as there's too much light from the Sun reflecting on the sky.
The best app to give you details of the time and position for the Galactic Center, the Sun, and the Moon is PhotoPills. In addition to the calendar, it also has a great augmented reality that shows you where and at what time the core will be visible.
Photopills is the de facto tool used by all interested in night sky photography. So if you are into it, I recommend you check out the videos and user guides (under the Academy tab). I personally use the "Planner" (for night AR) and "Moon" (calendar) options under "Pills" tab like 90% of the time.
Last point on the "when", you want a clear sky - with minimal cloud/fog coverage, It sounds basic but it is often overlooked. Check the forecast even if you see no clouds now, weather can change as the temps cool down at night - to that point, make sure you have proper clothing; I keep gloves and beanie always handy.
To know how, follow these three steps:
1. Find a dark sky area.
You want to avoid as much light pollution as possible, that means you will have to drive away from where city lights get on the way of the rising core or go to a higher altitude, above the light source.
To help you find the closest dark sky in your area, you can use an app such as Light Pollution Map (LPM) - see image. You want to be in the purple or green area as possible. The no-color areas are usually OK too. As long as you are away from the red/orange areas you have a chance but again, the darker the better.
In the next photo you can see there are lights, the Moon, and some clouds. Still we caught a glimpse of the Milky Way along with Saturn and Jupiter.
2. Let your eyes adjust to darkness.
Your eyes take 20-30 min to fully adjust to the darkness of the night. To increase your chances of seeing the core, avoid all bright lights, including cellular screen, car lights, headlamps, campfire, etc. If you must use a light to walk around, get a red light - other stargazers will appreciate it. Turn it off when not needed, photographers will appreciate that too!
As your eyes adjust, you will start seeing more and more stars.
3. Search for Scorpio.
The Scorpio constellation announces the rising of the Galactic Center. The bright light on the head of Scorpio is Antares. Just look to the left of it and there is the core!
While you get familiar with Scorpio, you may want to use an app like Skyview to help you locate Scorpio by just pointing the camera to the sky; the app will prompt you to change direction until the star is located. However be aware that the light on the LCD will likely mess up your night vision and you will need to adjust again.
Final recommendation, bring a chair, a blanket, maybe some munchies and prepare to be amazed.
I cannot describe the emotion when seeing all those celestial bodies, and the cherry on top is when a shooting start (or a meteorite or a comet) passes by. It is also a very humbling experience and it is quite addictive.
Has this guide inspired you to go chase the Milky Way? If so, please leave a comment and share this article with friends that you would want to spend a night under the stars with.
And do not forget to visit my gallery for more night sky images!