The Milky Way truly is a majestic view.
If you saw it, you are among the lucky ones, as manmade light pollution is hiding our galaxy from the eyes of one-third of the human population worldwide, including 60% of Europeans and 80% of people living in North America.
And if you haven’t had the chance to see the Milky Way, don’t despair just yet: here are a few tips and tricks to help you find and observe it.
What Is the Milky Way?
The Milky Way Galaxy is one among the countless galaxies scattered throughout the Universe, but it is a special one: The Milky Way is our home.
Together with the Andromeda Galaxy, the Triangulum Galaxy, the Great and the Small Magellanic Clouds, and a few others, it forms the Local Group, a group of galaxies mutually bounded by their gravitational pull.
Should the expansion of the Universe continue to accelerate, everything beyond our local group will fade out of sight.
Also, you may want to mark on your calendar that in about 4.5 billion years, the Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy, forming a super galaxy nicknamed Milkdromeda: must be a truly spectacular cosmic event 😉
Here are a few numbers about the Milky Way:
- Age: 13.5 billion years
- Size: 103 700 light-years (ly) in diameter, with a thickness of only 1 000 ly
- Type: Barred Spiral Galaxy
- Number of stars: anywhere from 100 to 400 billions
Our solar system is located in the inner rim of the Orion arm, within the galactic habitable zone, and orbiting the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A at the center from a distance of about 27 000 ly.
In case you are wondering, a light-year is the distance light travels in one year, about 9.46 trillion km. To compare, light only takes 8 minutes to cover the 150 000 000 km between the Sun and the Earth.
What Does The Milky Way Look like?
Since we are looking at the galaxy from within, we cannot see its real shape, as when we look at some other distant galaxies like, say, M51.
Instead, what we can see is the galactic plane of our galaxy, a region of the sky packed with stars stretching from horizon to horizon. This hazy, “band-like” look is why we call our galaxy The Milky Way.
Like all galaxies, the Milky Way has a supermassive black hole in its core, and the central part of the galaxy bulges out more with respect to the “thinner” outer regions.
This is why the most prominent feature we can see of the Milky Way is its core: huge, bright, and colorful it shows plenty of interesting contrasts due to ginormous dust clouds.
The Milky Way Season: When The Core Is In The Sky?
The Milky Way is visible all year, from any location. But the part towards the galactic core is seasonal, and when the core is up in the sky at night is the Milky Way season.
This would be from March to October in the northern hemisphere and from February to October in the southern hemisphere.
Because of our location in the Milky Way with respect to the galactic plane, people in the Southern Hemisphere can enjoy a far better view of the galactic core throughout the year.
Here in Belgium, I can see only part of the galactic core grazing above the southern horizon in summer.
Now, compare that with what a person living at the extreme southern point of South America can see.
As you can see, while we up in the Northern Hemisphere can see the core grazing above the horizon, people on the other side of Earth have a much better sight of the whole core hovering high up in the sky.
Within the Milky Way season, though, the best period for observing the core depends on your latitude, as this influences not only how much the core can climb above the horizon but also how long the nights are during the year.
The Winter Milky Way
For us in the northern hemisphere, winter is Orion season, and not many people will consider the Milky Way as a great target. Indeed, the core is not visible, but if you are into astrophotography, you can take mesmerizing images of the Milky Way stretching above snowy landscapes.
From Where Can I See The Milky Way?
Latitude and short nights are not the only things that make observing and photographing the Milky Way challenging.
As well as manmade light pollution from city lights and street lights, the Moon can render the Milky Way invisible to the naked eye and barely visible in photographs.
The Bortle scale provides a way to rate the darkness of your sky by considering the magnitude of the faintest objects you can see in the sky.
Apps and websites can overlay a color-coded version of the Bortle scale on a map: places under Bortle Class 4 skies, and darker, are the best locations from where to observe the Milky Way.
If you can travel, dry and dark places above sea level are the best places on Earth to enjoy the night sky.
How To Plan Observing And Photographing The Milky Way?
Decades ago, you would have used star charts and Moon calendars. Today, all we need is a smartphone.
To plan for your Milky Way session, particularly if you need to travel to a different location, you should know:
- The Weather Forecasts
- The Moon Phase and its position in the sky
- The Galactic Core visibility and its position in the sky
- The level of light pollution, particularly if the galactic center is low in the sky
Aside from offering useful calculators for photography, PhotoPills is the ideal app to plan a night under the stars.
The image below shows the planner mode in PhotoPills, and here is how it works.
We have a number of information we can use to plan our observation:
- The Moon phase as well as rise and set times for both the Sun and the Moon
- The time when Civil, Nautical and Astronomical twilights start and end
- The visibility of the Galactic Core
- How much of the central part of the galaxy is visible, its elevation and the maximum elevation for the Milky Way arch
- Timeline of the day for the selected date. In Cyano is daylight, in red sunrise and sunset, the shades of blue indicate the different twilights for the night. The yellow and cyano lines indicate the position above and below the horizon for the Moon and the Sun.
- The dropped pin is the location of interest, say the Breskens’ lighthouse
- The dotted arch represents the Milky Way, and the thin white lines show the direction of the arch (N-S in the image) while the thick one shows the direction of the galactic center
- (a) the directions where sunrises and (b) sunset can be seen
- (a) the directions where moonrises, (b) the Moon and (c) the moonset can be seen
What Can I See And Photograph in The Milky Way?
The Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon and it houses a countless number of stars, star clusters, nebulae, and vast, colorful dust clouds.
Here is a short list of what you can see in the Milky Way Band:
- The Galactic Core: the most iconic and colorful part, with plenty of dust clouds
- Constellations: notable constellations in the Milky Way band are Auriga, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Cygnus, Aquila, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Norma, Crux, Vela, and Monoceros.
- Notable targets in the Milky Way Band are all major nebulae and star clusters within the aforementioned constellation.
- Hidden Galaxies. These are Galaxies whose visibility is reduced greatly by the dust in the Milky Way, particularly towards the core. One of such “hidden” galaxies is IC 342, in Camelopardalis, a challenging target for us in the Northern Hemisphere.
How To Observe The Milky Way: What Gear Do You Need?
One thing to remember is that no matter what instrument you choose for observing the night sky, you will not be able to see colors. For us to see colors, we need a relatively bright light source, but being deep sky objects very faint, we basically see them colorless.
Telescopes are what you need to close in on individual targets. For visual observation it is best to use a fast telescope, such as a large aperture, f/5 Newtonian telescope or faster.
Binoculars are the best for recreational and easy observation of the sky and the milky way. 8×40 and 10×50 binos do provide a very bright image and can easily be used handheld. With higher magnification, though, you should use a tripod for your bino.
But the ultimate way to enjoy the night sky in complete freedom may be using wide-field binoculars, such as these 2.1×42 SVBONY Bino.
Tips For Photographing The Milky Way
Photographing the Milky Way is better done as part of a starry landscape, using a fisheye, ultra-wide-angle lens, or by creating a panorama.
As with star trails photography, for a successful Milky Way image you need an interesting foreground too.
Here is a tip: plan your shot ahead. A rising Moon can naturally light the landscape while having a limited impact on the Milky Way visibility.
As per the equipment, start easy: use a wide-angle lens, a tripod, and focus on composition.
Use the NPF or the 500 rule to determine how long you can expose before stars will trail noticeably, choose the fastest usable aperture for your lens and try using ISO 1600 to 3200. And don’t forget to shoot for image stacking.
A star tracker like the Omegon Minitrack LX2 (or newer) is a great and affordable tool for capturing better details in the sky. However, you will need to shoot the sky and the landscape separately and combine them later in post.
Observing and photographing the Milky Way is a challenging but rewarding experience. You may need to travel to fight light pollution and moonlight, but the sight is truly majestic.
An experience to do at least once.