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Backpackers always get the best stargazing spots. Whether it’s lying in a field with some of your best friends, curled up in a sleeping bag above an alpine lake, or gazing out through your rain fly-less tent, the unpolluted night sky is truly something to behold.
Eight Must-See Night Sky Events in 2015
July 1: Convergence of Venus and Jupiter
Two planets, one perfect view. Train your gaze to the west just after sunset to see these planets extremely close to one another.
July 28/29: Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower
While the entire meteor shower runs from July 12 to August 23, it peaks at the end of July, producing up to 20 meteors per hour. Catch it after midnight in the darkest spot you can find.
August 12/13: Perseids Meteor Shower
This popular annual shower produces nearly 60 meteors an hour at its peak, which this year falls during a thin crescent moon. Night owls will get the best views after midnight.
August 29: The supermoon
The first of three supermoon occurrences on the books for 2015 (the others are September 28 and October 27).
September 28: Total lunar eclipse (Blood Moon)
The Earth will drift between the sun and the moon, with our planet’s shadow casting an eerie red pall across the lunar surface.
October 21/22: Orionids Meteor Shower
This shower will produce about 20 meteors per hour during its peak. Meteors can appear anywhere, but keep an eye on the Orion constellation for the best odds.
October 28: Convergence of Venus, Mars, and Jupiter
The early bird gets the worm on this one: Look east just before sunrise to see the three planets forming a triangle.
December 13/14: Geminids Meteor Shower
Hardy winter campers will get a treat when this shower peaks, producing 120 multi-colored meteors per hour.
There’s a lot to know about the night sky and these smartphone apps are here to help.
Star Walk 2: If you are looking for an app to show you what is what in the night sky, look no further than Star Walk 2. Point your phone at the sky and be amazed by the visual effects in the app. And if the quiet of the night is making you uncomfortable, the app comes equipped with a soundtrack. Just make sure anyone else you are with is fine with it. You can also look ahead in time to see what the night sky will be like later on that night or a few months ahead of you. The $2.99 at the app store is well worth it.
SkyView Free: The app doesn’t require a data connection to function, making it ideal for off-the-grid stargazing.
Aurora Forecast: Depending on where you live, you may be more interested in just seeing the stars. The Aurora Borealis is quiet and elusive as it hauntingly paints the night sky. Never miss a potential spotting again with Aurora Forecast. This app will keep you up-to-date on the latest solar activity so you are better prepared. And if you don’t feel like constantly monitoring the app, sign up for push notifications to alert you with potential sightings.
Sky Map: It doesn’t contain as many of the frills as some other astronomy apps, but Google’s Sky Map is free and simple to use. Just point your phone towards the area of the sky you are looking to identify stars, constellations and other features night sky.
Star Chart: One of the coolest features in the app is the ability to time travel forward or backward to see what the night sky was in the past or will be in the future. The app itself is free, but if you are looking to invest a little more into your star-gazing hobby, there are plenty of cool features you can buy within the app. And if any iPhone users are jealous, no worries, it is available for your device as well.
Aurora Notifier: Fear not Android users, there are plenty of aurora apps for you out there as well. Aurora notifier is a free app that displays current aurora activity. Set the Kp-Index Threshold to the appropriate level depending on where you are to receive alerts for potential aurora viewing opportunities.
Choosing a Night Sky Viewing Spot
Here are some helpful tips for choosing the perfect star-gazing spot.
1. Get away from lights.
This one is a no-brainer, but you’ll want to get as far away from big cities as possible. Light pollution can drown out all but the brightest of stars.
2. West is better than east.
There are definitely some exceptions, like Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, a certified gold-standard international dark sky park. But overall, your chances of seeing the full night sky will be much higher is the less-densely populated regions of the western United States.
3. Brave cooler nights.
More often than not, the sky is clearer on a cold night than a hot one. The cooler air doesn’t trap as much moisture and cloud coverage can be significantly lower.
4. Pay attention to the moon.
The moon is pretty awesome, but if you are hoping for a good stargazing experience, make sure you plan according to the phases of the moon. Try to go out during a new moon instead of when it’s full.