DESERT OFFERS PRISTINE VIEWING OF MILKY WAY
San Diego’s spring desert wildflower show may have been out of this world, but an even more unworldly show is soon to arrive in the dark night sky of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
March means that the spectacular display of star clouds known as the Milky Way arrives just before dawn in the dark desert sky. As spring turns to summer, the Milky Way rises a bit later each night, traveling across the heavens in one of America’s greatest dark sky locations.
By July the shifting heavens will begin the nightly show around 9 p.m. and by late August the Milky Way will be almost directly overhead at the same hour. By fall, the Milky Way will be setting shortly after sunset.
Summer crowds will be nothing like the hordes that swarmed spring wildflower fields, but you will be surprised at the number of people in the desert on the dark sky weekends when the moon is not affecting stargazing.
If you are prepared for summer heat and have an off-road vehicle, you can escape to wilderness badlands and instead of the crowds of stargazers, you are more likely to be all alone under a twinkling blanket of starlight, accented with the occasional flash of a meteor. For urban dwellers, it’s a show they may have never seen and are likely to never forget.
What makes stargazing so special in the summer desert?
The first and most obvious answer is you can see stars there. Even late at night, urban dwellers must contend with light pollution that masks all but the brightest stars. Sadly, there is a generation of youngsters who have never discovered the beauty of a spectacular night sky in its full glory.Secondly, the more densely compact field of stars of the Milky Way is only visible in the summer. The winter sky may actually offer better “seeing,” but in the winter, stargazers are looking through a thinner portion of the galaxy instead of the thicker core that rotates into view in the summer sky. What you are seeing when you gaze into the clouds of the Milky Way is a galaxy of 100 billion stars stretching over a span of 100,000 light years. A light year is the distance light travels in one year at a speed of 186,000 miles per second, or 5.9 trillion miles. It’s hard to comprehend.
The heart of the Milky Way is in the constellation Sagittarius. In this brightest area the various dust lanes, stars and other celestial objects are the most concentrated.
Viewing the Milky Way requires nothing more than a dark sky and a comfortable chair or blanket. Many summer desert visitors do just that. They pack a picnic, pick a night when moonlight will not interfere and head out to enjoy the quiet and beauty. Like ancient viewers, you need nothing but your eyes to discover the many constellations.
Photographers also flock to the desert on dark sky nights, using wideangle and fast lenses to capture the beauty of the stars. Amateur astronomers will have telescopes set up to get up close and personal with such spectacular objects as the Andromeda Galaxy, the Dumbbell Nebula, the Hercules Star Cluster or the double star called Albireo in Cygnus the Swan Constellation.
The summer sands of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are perfect for doing all of this. Located within a two-hour drive of most metropolitan areas of Southern California, the park is only one of two places in California designated as dark sky locations by the International Dark Sky Association.
The park is also located behind a range of mountains that blocks the glow of urban areas to the west, and it provides a viewing window to the southeast that is most conducive to seeing the star show.
Many sky gazers look for nights close to the new moon to head to the desert, however, good viewing can be found during a window of several days before and after the dark moon. Dark moon nights begin in April on the 26th, followed by no moon on May 25, June 23, July 23, Aug. 21 and Sept. 19.
I am offering a night sky photography workshop through George's Camera on June 24. Visit www.georgescamera.com for details. Click on Classes and events.