The Sky’s the Limit How and Where to Watch the Cosmos in the D.C. Area

The Sky’s the Limit: How and Where to Watch the Cosmos in the D.C. Area

The night sky has captivated the human imagination from the earliest times. Those looking skyward at night have given names and stories to the clusters of stars and other celestial objects overhead. While the ever-present light from a variety of sources undoubtedly causes light pollution that presents a problem for stargazing in the DMV, there are ways around it. It’s worth the effort to bring the magic of the night sky to your family.

Make a Start

All you really need is a sense of wonder and a clear night. How many stars you’ll be able to see is a direct function of how bright the lights around you are at night. There’s a scale called the Bortle scale that you can use to gain an understanding of light pollution, or there is a wheel that you can print out and compare to your night sky to see how many stars you should be able to see around either Orion or Scorpio. If these steps are a few steps ahead of your current abilities, the trial version of the highly rated Sky Guide app will display what is overhead in your precise location.

Once you have an understanding of the effect of light pollution in your area, you can decide whether you need to scout out places that will be darker – the idea being, the darker, the better. As a rule of thumb, your viewing will be significantly better when you are about 25 miles away from the nearest city. One way to decide if you’ve got good conditions overhead is to imagine a scale ranging from only specks of light visible overhead in a light sky (significant light pollution) to specks of dark in a dark sky overhead (little to no light pollution).

When you have your spot, you’ll likely find that the largest objects will be visible without a telescope – think of the moon. You may decide to use binoculars for a better look, such as at craters on the moon. It’s only when you want to see objects farther away that you’ll need to invest in a telescope. If you want to know more or speak to knowledgeable skywatchers, try the National Capital Astronomers. All are welcome at their outdoor events. There are also meetings for you via Zoom.

Where to Go

There are many places in the DMV that offer terrific viewing. Space Tourism Guide offers lists for Maryland, Virginia and D.C. Many parks and rec centers host outdoor night sky programs, like the “Stargazing Starters” program held by Black Hill Nature Programs in Boyd’s, Md. This program for beginners is intended for ages 10 and up. Participants are encouraged to bring binoculars and chairs or blankets for this program, which starts with the basics. Registration is required, and there is a small fee. Rock Creek Park holds “Exploring the Sky” in conjunction with the National Capital Astronomers. There is a slightly rugged walk to the telescopes. All are welcome at this free event. New dates and times will be posted on both the National Park Service and National Capital Astronomers websites as they are announced.

You can tour planets, constellations, stars, nebulas and galaxies in the night sky that can be seen with the eye and in telescopes at the Turner Farm Park Observatory in Great Falls, Va. They also have Astronomy Festivals coming up January 20 and February 17, 2024. And January 13, 2024, Burke Lake Park is hosting a winter Stargazing Extravaganza. Enjoy activities including guided star gazing, observing the night sky through the lens of a telescope and listening to ancient stories about the constellations around a campfire. Seating is limited so register now for the time you prefer.

Planetariums and observatories are another excellent place to start your sky exploration. These venues offer overhead shows that familiarize you with the constellations or other objects. The Georgetown University Astronomical Society hosts weekly meetings at the Hayden Observatory. Call ahead for information on programs for families.

The planetarium shows at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum are excellent and available to all ages. The planetarium at the Montgomery College Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus is undergoing renovation, but there are several others in the DMV. The National Museum of Natural History will continue its “Lights Out: Recovering Our Night Sky” exhibit through December 2025. You’ll find more than 100 photographs, nearly 250 objects, interactive experiences, tactile models and a theater program – all designed to rekindle your connection with the night sky.

What to Look For

The constellations overhead vary with the season. For that reason, it’s best to consult a local astronomy club or use an app with information about your location. With this in hand and your understanding of how dark it is in the area you’re viewing from, you can realistically set your sights on anything from the planets and constellations to the International Space Station and even the Milky Way. As always, what you can see will be a function of the season, the weather and the amount of light pollution.

Make It Fun

Winter skies are generally considered the best for stargazing because there is less moisture in the air, which results in very little haze between you and everything overhead. For beginners, this makes spotting constellations and planets much easier. Tell your kids what you’ll be looking for before you step outside, bundle up, take a laser pointer along to direct their attention, add some hot cocoa and a thick blanket and you’re good to go.

Observing the changes in the moon during the lunar cycle is a surefire way to familiarize your family with the night sky. It’s likely you’ll be able to spot the moon without traveling to a dark spot or using anything more than the naked eye. Start a journal with sketches of what you all see. Then, consult your app or the EarthSky site to see what else there is to spot. Have your kids take turns finding those objects while pointing out other things that interest them.

Plan Ahead

In addition to the apps and sites mentioned, Starlust provides a sneak peek of what’s coming month by month. If you’re ready to get started tonight, take a look at this listing of astro events, moon phases, planets, constellations, deep space objects, comets, stars, meteors, the space station and eclipses. Then – bundle up and get outside!

More Resources for Viewing the Night Sky in the DMV

Note: Outdoors sky-viewing programs may be cancelled at the last-minute due to cloudy skies or rain, so be sure to sign up for updates from the organizer/venue when you register or follow their social media.

Parks & Rec Centers

Outdoor Sites

Planetariums & Observatories

Podcasts, E-News & General Sites

Beginner Info from NASA

Astronomy Festival

Hofstra University’s Astronomy Festival on the National Mall (AFNM), Saturday, June 22, 2024, 6 – 11 p.m. A free guided tour of the sky with solar, optical and radio telescope observations; hands-on activities, demonstrations and more. Learn about the latest astronomical discoveries and careers in science. Starting at 6 p.m, visitors will be able to view sunspots with the help of specially filtered telescopes. After dusk and until 11 p.m., telescopes will provide close-up views of colorful double stars, nebulae and star clusters. 7th to 9th Streets, NW, Washington, D.C.