Do you believe the many reports throughout the year, that the aurora borealis, or northern lights, are visible nearly any night of the year in northern Michigan? This is certainly an overstatement, though this nighttime display of solar activity, sometimes visible from late summer through late winter, is one of the many highlights of stargazing in our region.
Created when space particles hit Earth’s atmosphere, the aurora borealis is certainly a treat to see, this is far from the only good night watching in the area.
The Northern Lights tend to be most visible beginning in late winter because this is when the night sky tends to be darkest. The darkest nights are of course the best for viewing, but so too is staying up late enough to let any ambient light dissipate as much as possible, and this might mean being outdoors well past midnight.
To see the best lights, you need to stay up late. It is distressing to learn you missed the show because you did not stay up.
Ensure too that you are in an area free of light pollution of any kind, which includes not only outdoor motion sensor lights, or the glow from streetlights, but also handheld lights like a smart phone or a watch face that glows in the dark. Nothing cuts the dark like a pinprick of handheld light that explodes light a sun flare in the after-midnight dark.
Many stargazers limit their night watching to the warmer months, though Aurora conditions are sometimes most conducive in late winter or late fall, when temperatures can range from just above freezing to single digits. A comfortable sweater or heavy jacket, depending on nighttime lows, can ward off any need to abandon plans. Do not be frightened off by the cold
My favorite places to star watch are along any part of the shoreline stretching north of Harbor Springs toward Sturgeon Bay, or south between Petoskey and Charlevoix. Sometimes, however, the darkest spots are inland, among the trees and other cover that helps gobble up other light.
Farther from home, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore west of Grand Marais in the Upper Peninsula is perfect for night viewing, as is Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore near Empire. Both locations offer dark surroundings, as well as skies wide enough to invite the full impact of northern star watching.
Pay attention to the lunar cycle too, because while the moon is often the easiest star in the sky to identify, it can also make focusing in on other celestial lights more challenging.
If you’re still wondering what you’re looking at when you turn skyward, find a useful star map, like those from www.skymaponline.net or www.stargazing.net No sense confusing the Sirius with the Pleiades.
In the end, all you really need is a dark backyard, a comfortable blanket, and a bit of unfettered time, once the stars come out.