The Milky Way
In addition to having over 100 million stars and as many planets, the Milky Way is BIG!
It is over 100,000 light years in diameter, with our Solar System being about 27,000 light years from the Galactic Center. Our Solar System is travelling at 500,000 miles an hour around it and it takes 200-250 million years to make ONE trip around the Galactic Center. In the history of the Earth, it has made 20 laps around the Milky Way!
The next closest galaxy to us is Andromeda which is 2.5m light years away. It can be found in the Northern night sky near the constellation Cassiopeia under perfect conditions.
Every year from about April - Oct, the Earth is positioned such that you can gaze into the central core of the Milky Way.
Why can’t I see the Milky Way from my backyard?
For those of us living in the city, it takes some planning to see the Milky Way. We’ve learned that the Sun needs to be well below the horizon. Add to that, the Moon must not be in the sky and you need to be in a dark sky location. The reason for that is the Milky Way is extremely far away and very faint in the sky. The glow of light pollution from city lights is often brighter than the light from the distant stars.
I Brake for Dark Skies
A dark sky location away is away from the glow of the city lights above you and on the horizon, allowing you to see more stars! Canyon of the Eagles, Enchanted Rock State Park, Caprock Canyon State Park, Davis Mountains State Park and Big Bend National Park are all excellent locations. The Milky Way will look like a hazy band of white light arching across the night sky.
Use Your Night Vision Super Powers!
To see the most stars, give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness. Spend 20 minutes with no white light and little by little, the rods and cones in your eyes will adjust. Then you will see more stars.
If you need light to look at a star chart or to safely move around, try not to use a standard flashlight. Use a red filtered light to preserve your night vision, the same goes for any Star Apps, put them in Night Mode which changes the colors to reds and dims the brightness. Academy has handy little headlamps that have a red light mode, give one a try!
Go outside on a night when there are some clouds in the sky and the moon has not yet risen. Do they appear black or shades of gray? If the clouds appear gray, you are seeing light pollution!
The second experiment is to go outside and stand by a streetlight. How many stars can you count around the Big Dipper?
Now go into a shadow in your backyard where you are blocked from the streetlight. How many can you see?
Next turn off all of the lights in your house and go back to that spot. How many?
For bonus points, take a short drive into the country, how many can you count now?
Click the button below to find a dark sky near you!