Frankie Alonso, 8, peers at Venus through the 8-inch Alvan Clark Refractor at Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland on Feb. 17, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)
International Dark Sky Week — the annual celebration of the night sky, to raise awareness of light pollution globally — is April 15–22. And with the new moon approaching, it’s a perfect time to embrace and appreciate our sparkling, enchanting night skies.
If you’re hoping to plan a stargazing trip this year, or just get outside and enjoy the view at a stargazing spot near you, keep reading for a guide to the astronomical events to look for this year — with some night photography tips to keep handy.
Meteors are small chunks of dirt and dust that were freed up from comets or asteroids that are in orbit around the solar system. The earth intersects with this swarm of dust, and the dust hits Earth’s atmosphere and burns up.
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower will peak from 3 a.m. until 6 a.m. on Saturday, May 6, producing around 60 meteors per hour. The Eta Aquarids is one of two meteor showers created by debris from Comet Halley. Note that there will be a full moon that night, and its light will probably be competing with the meteors. This means your visibility might be low.
On Aug. 12 and 13, the Perseids meteor shower, one of the more popular showers occurring in the summer, will be visible in our night skies. It will peak at around 3 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 13, producing 50 to 100 meteors per hour. There will be a relatively new moon, so not a lot of moonlight will disrupt the view.
Unlike other meteor showers, the Geminids are associated with an asteroid called the 3200 Phaethon, instead of a comet. The Geminids produce up to 120 meteors per hour, and a moonless night will again make this worth watching out for. “It’s pretty active and it’s usually nice dark skies because it’s in the winter,” Burress said.
On Oct. 14, 2023, we will be able to experience an annular solar eclipse. Unlike a total solar eclipse, where the sun is fully covered by the moon, during an annular eclipse the moon is a little bit further away in its orbit.
“So it doesn’t quite cover the sun, but it leaves the ring of fire around the dark circle of the moon,” said Andrew Fraknoi, an astronomer and board member of the SETI Institute.
Organizations across North America, including the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the National Science Teaching Association, are gearing up to help train eclipse “explainers” and disseminate reliable information.
Places like Henry W. Coe State Park in the South Bay, Skyline Boulevard in Oakland and Mount Diablo in the East Bay, Mount Tamalpais and Point Reyes in Marin County, and Bodega Bay in Sonoma County in the North Bay have especially dark skies and optimal conditions for stargazing. On the peninsula, Pescadero and the Santa Cruz Mountains are good spots.
If you’re willing to drive a bit further, you can head out of the Bay Area to places like Pinnacles National Park, Death Valley, Yosemite or other national parks that usually have less light pollution. Or, refer to a dark sky map to find out where you’ll have the best view.
You can join a free telescope viewing at Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland. On the peninsula, there’s the Foothill College Observatory in Los Altos Hills, and in the North Bay you can go to the Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sonoma County, which regularly has telescope viewings available to the public.
“There are actually hundreds of clubs of astronomy enthusiasts around the country. And in the Bay Area, we have a very rich collection of astronomy clubs,” said Fraknoi.
You can find other fellow astronomy enthusiasts on NASA’s Night Sky Network, many of whom host star parties and astronomy events, including camping trips.
Tips for taking photos of stars and meteor showers
Shreenivasan Manievannan, a professional photographer and Bay Area resident, has been an advocate at the International Dark-Sky Association since 2014. He’s involved with public outreach activities that promote the protection of our dark skies. This includes sharing his love of astrophotography through photos and time-lapse videos of the amazing views of our cosmos and organizing workshops about the importance of our dark skies at public libraries.
For those interested in taking photos of the night sky, Manievannan says you should first understand which camera suits your need and what you are trying to capture. If you’re planning on shooting high-quality images and are ready to make the investment, Manievannan’s advice is to first look for a basic SLR or mirrorless camera with a good wide-angle lens, a camera that can take long exposure shots, like 15 to 30 seconds long.
If you’re not ready to make an investment but still want to take some good night shots, he says most camera phones these days can take decent photos of the night sky, and are equipped with night mode functions.
Timing matters, too. Manievannan said his favorite time of year to capture the Milky Way, for example, is the summer, when “you would be able to see the Milky Way rising in the southeast, soon after sunset.” His favorite places to capture the Milky Way are the Sierra Nevada, Bodega Bay, Davenport and Pescadero. He also recommends looking for the Perseids. “The number of meteors per hour is pretty consistent with Perseids, and the meteors are really bright. And then it has a long trail, too, at times,” he said.
These days he particularly enjoys taking his 7-year-old daughter out to enjoy the night sky. “I’ve been taking her since she was 1 or 2,” he said.
Manievannan hopes that, especially for Dark Sky Week, while the moon is not as bright, people take the opportunity to step outside to enjoy the beauty of the night sky.