Last revised: July 5, 2018
Original Publish Date: June 26, 2012
This is Part 1 of a multi-part series on finding and photographing the Milky Way. From November through February it is impossible to spot the densest part of the Milky Way because the sun is hovering there. Read on for more information.
What IS the Milky Way?
The Milky Way in Summer from Horizon to Horizon
We are located in a corner of the heavens of a galaxy we call “The Milky Way.” The Milky Way stretches all the way across the sky and some part
of the Milky Way is present every
night – indeed EVERY star you see in the sky is located within our Milky Way. Most people, however, think of the Milky Way as the cloud-like stretch of stars from the constellation Scorpius (aka Scorpio) to the constellation Cygnus – particularly the part nearest to Sagittarius.
I’ll try not to be too poetic, but when you have clearly seen the Milky Way, it is hard to describe how awesome it is without breaking into song. In ideal conditions the diffuse light of the Milky Way can cast a shadow on the ground! Unfortunately there is little chance that you will ever see that shadow because most accessible places in the world are mildly to HORRIBLY light polluted. Constellations that are found in the Milky Way include: Perseus (off the bottom), Cassiopeia (near the bottom in the picture above-left), Lacerta, Cygnus (near the center), Aquila, Sagittarius, Ophiuchus and Scorpius (very top). Those in the Southern Hemisphere will also find Norma, Circinus, Crux, and Carina. There is a faint portion of the Milky Way visible in Puppis, Canis Major and the bow of Orion. Look carefully at the image above and you’ll see a bright “smudge” in the center of the bottom fourth of the image. That is one of our sister galaxies known as Andromeda. The galaxy gets its name from the constellation in which it is found. With an unaided eye it is readily possible to spot Andromeda in a dark sky. With binoculars Andromeda is observable even in a suburban area. In the southern hemisphere two additional sister galaxies called the Large and Small Magellanic clouds are easily seen. On a dark clear night it is easy to observe the lack of stars in the broad band of wispiness that forms the Milky Way. But the dark void is not due to the absence of stars. The void is due to immense inky dust lanes that obscure the stars!
When to See the Milky Way
The sun is in the constellation Sagittarius in December so during November, December and January it is impossible to view the richest part of the Milky Way. October and February are generally impossible, too. The optimum viewing time in the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer when the sun is on the opposite side of the sky. Unfortunately summer in the Northern Hemisphere is also when hot, stormy, cloudy weather is doing its worst and also when the nights are the shortest. Those in the Southern Hemisphere have an advantage – longer and cooler nights during winter mean the air is clearer. Using a simple tool called a planisphere it is easy to predict when and where to look for the dense part of the Milky Way. But what must also be factored in is the location and phase of the moon. The time of year and the direction of the least light pollution also frame the parameters for getting the best view of the Milky Way. Generally the dense part of the Milky Way is best viewed when it is as high as possible in the Southern sky. Facing south during April and May the pre-dawn hours are best. From June to early August the best time is near midnight, though the Milky Way will be visible almost all night. From Mid August through September the best time is soon after the sun has set and the sky has grown dark. Below is an illustration that may help you. It was created for 38 degrees North latitude, but will serve the middle of the United States, Southern Europe, Northern China, Japan, and any location at a similar latitude very closely. The farther North you go, the lower in the southern sky the Milky Way will be. If you live above 65 degrees north, you will never see the Milky Way core because it never rises above your local horizon. The circle in the image below indicates the star Alnasl in the constellation Sagittarius. Above Alnasl (the spout of the teapot) is the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.
The Milky Way as seen from Mid-Northern Latitudes Facing South. Click for a larger illustration
Best Times To Spot the Milky Way
||Best Time (Local Time)
||Difficult. Before sunrise (late February only)
||3Q to New
||Difficult. Before sunrise
||New to 1Q
||4 AM to Sunrise
||New to 1Q
||3 AM to 6 AM
||New to 1Q
||10 PM to 2 AM
||Sunset to Midnight
||3Q to New
||Sunset until 10 PM
||3Q to New
||Sunset until 9 PM
||3Q to New
||Difficult: Sunset (early October only)
||3Q to New
*1Q means first quarter moon (half full). In its first quarter the moon rises around noon and sets near midnight. 2Q is a Full moon. Nearly full is called a Gibbous. It is nearly impossible to see the Milky Way when the moon is near full. 3Q is the third quarter (also half full) moon which rises near midnight and sets near noon. New means the moon rises and sets very near the sun. Includes a slender crescent phase, too.
Where to See the Milky Way
Central Nevada, Eastern Utah. Montana. In short, remote areas far from city light pollution afford the best view. But if you know what to look for and when and where to look you can spot the Milky Way from many places throughout the world. Or you can wait for a massive regional blackout. I have seen the Milky Way very clearly from the top of Mission Peak in Fremont, California – an area with over 8 million people in literally every direction. However that glimpse required that the entire Bay Area be blotted out by low, heavy fog. My perch was above the darkness blanket that the fog provided. Yosemite National Park is still mostly dark despite cities like Fresno that are doing their best to ruin the darkness. Anywhere along a remote area of the coast far from cities there is a chance to see the Milky Way. For example, I spotted a washed out Milky Way just 8 miles north of Santa Cruz, California. A long exposure and some photo editing improved the view. If you get farther away from civilization the results can be much more spectacular as you see here. Finding somewhere in the country where it is truly dark, like the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, or White Mountain in Central, Eastern California the Milky Way reaches its most inspiring awesomeness. If you live outside the United States, do not despair, you have a good chance of seeing the core of the galaxy from anywhere south of 55 degrees northern latitude. Above that latitude the core of the Milky Way will never rise above the horizon.
How do I See the Milky Way
I know what you’re thinking: don’t I just “look” in the right direction? The answer is no! It takes your eyes 15 to 20 minutes to see their best in the dark. Any bright light source in the direction you look will diminish the view. Running out of a well-lit house, or jumping out of a car where you’ve spent the last 15 minute driving with the headlights on will make the Milky Way far less awesome. Avoiding ALL light and shielding your eyes from anything you can’t avoid will help a lot. Do you see the Milky Way in this photo from the top of Clouds Rest in Yosemite? I promise you it is there. It juts out above the Yosemite Valley near the center of the image. Here is a view from the wilderness in Yosemite.
Can You Help Me Find the Best Time Where I Live/Work/Travel?
In short, no. Please read through the comments for many such questions and answers. It’s impossible to cover information for everywhere on earth, but our notes here cover all the general concepts. Moreover, the moon phase is different – the moon doesn’t behave like the sun, so even though the Milky Way may be glorious this year on say August 8th, next year the moon may be full and obscure your view. Also, weather conditions may affect your view, so do not neglect that variable!
How Do I Photograph The Milky Way?
Cameras are getting better all the time, and there are some nifty tricks you can use to make a compelling photograph of the Milky Way even if your camera is not the top heavyweight performer in the gear smack down. We’ll cover cameras and techniques in installment 2 of this series!