For centuries, poets and painters and photographers have tried to capture the magnificence of the night skies. Vast and seemingly endless, teeming with stars and planets and moons, a clear night sky and its celestial bodies can inspire us in subtle and special ways.
“I recall laying on a floating dock under the stars on Moosehead Lake [in upstate Maine] with friends when I was a young teenager,” said Jenny Ward of the Appalachian Mountain Club. “My friends were from urban areas a day’s drive away. This was their first experience seeing the stars.”
Being from northern Maine, Ward had always taken the stars for granted, so the experience opened her eyes in a different way. “It provided an opportunity for us to emotionally connect and share our thoughts under one amazing dark sky.”
Closer to Boston, Bern Kosicki of Chelmsford, former president and board member of the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston, said night skies not only give us an appreciation for the natural world, but also for all those curious stargazers who came before us.
“While hiking under the night sky, don’t forget to look up,” said Kosicki. “You can connect with thousands of years of our ancestors who have looked at essentially the same carpet of stars and wondered about them, and have seen outlines of mystical figures to try to make sense of the night sky.”
Nighthawks can enjoy themselves even when the moon pushes the stars to the background. Those experiences, said Meghan Bowe of Medford, who leads hikes and kayak trips for the Trustees of Reservations, are no less fascinating.
“The full-moon hikes are some of my favorite hikes, especially the family hikes, because there is something so magical about seeing a place by the moonlight,” said Bowe. “Your eyes adjust to the dark, and with a bright enough moon you will actually have a moon shadow.”
Most people have not explored the Crane Wildlife Refuge in Ipswich at night, she said, “let alone a spooky and beautiful ecosystem like our dune ecosystem.”
On the South Shore, the Trustees’ Robin Steele leads full-moon hikes at World’s End in Hingham twice a month throughout the year.
“World’s End is perfectly suited for night hikes. The beautifully maintained trails and scenery, especially from the top of Planters Hill — the highest point at World’s End — offer views of the Boston skyline as the sun sets,” said Steele. “Hikers then see the moon rising over the treetops, Hull, and beyond.”
Many night-hiking enthusiasts agree that the cooler months might be the best time for enjoying the night skies, but the warm summer months have their share of special attractions.
“At this time of year, a night walk can be a welcome relief to the heat of day,” said Kevin Kopchynski of Monson, a Mass Audubon naturalist who also teaches astronomy for the Springfield Science Museum. “The heavens open up and add a new dimension to your world.”
In late June, for example, five planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — lined up in correct order in the early morning sky, with the moon in the Earth’s spot, Kopchynski said.
“The heart of the Milky Way shows to the south for those who can get to a site away from lights,” he added.
If your goal is to see as many stars as possible, head outside during the new moons: Aug. 27, Sept. 25, and Oct. 25. Keep an eye out for upcoming meteor showers, especially the Perseids, which will peak on Aug. 11-12, and the Orionids, starting late September and peaking on Oct. 20-21.
The key, of course, is finding the right setting. Star-filled night skies are typically associated with distant locations, like Maine’s Moosehead Lake. But there are pockets throughout Eastern Massachusetts that provide a glimpse of the heavens in all their glory.
Fortunately, a number of organizations — The Trustees of Reservations, the Appalachian Mountain Club, MassAudubon, REI, Essex County Greenbelt Association, among others – offer programs that permit access to parks and other natural areas that might otherwise be closed after sundown.
Many urban and suburban areas, with their streetlights and porch lights and every other manner of artificial illumination, are less than ideal for a truly stunning display of the cosmic bodies overhead.
Light pollution, “caused by our excessive need to light the night with poorly designed light fixtures,” is the major obstacle to optimal stargazing conditions, said Chris Elledge of Arlington, membership secretary for the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston.
According to the International Dark-Sky Association, the widespread use of artificial light is impairing our view of the universe, as well as creating a host of health and environmental issues.
“Less than 100 years ago, everyone could look up and see a spectacular starry night sky,” the association states on its website, darksky.org. “Now, millions of children across the globe will never experience the Milky Way where they live.”
The best locations for summer viewing in Eastern Massachusetts are along the shorelines that have a clear southern view without any city lights to the south, such as Gloucester and Rockport or Buzzards Bay, Elledge said.
Natural light, especially light reflecting off our moon, is also a hindrance. If you’re planning a stargazing trip, avoid the two weeks between the first quarter and last quarter moon, Elledge advised. “The moon is pretty to look at, but when it’s high and bright it washes out the Milky Way and faint stars,” he said.
Interested in stargazing? Kopchynski said fledgling astronomers should consider purchasing “365 Starry Nights: An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year” by Chet Raymo, a former science columnist for the Boston Globe.
Another way to get started is through star clubs such as the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston (atmob.org) or Skyscrapers Inc. in Rhode Island (theskyscrapers.org). And StarDate.org lists daily celestial features, Kopchynski said.
Kosicki recommends finding a chart online that shows constellations and other objects in the sky. Be sure it aligns with the month when you’re heading outside.
“It is fun to locate constellations and bright stars, and learn how to find them without using a guide,” he said. “Then try out binoculars to look at bright objects like star clusters or other larger objects shown on your star chart.”
Elledge suggests finding a good pair of binoculars with a minimum 8x magnification, and downloading an app such as SkySafari that helps you explore the heavens.
“You don’t need a telescope, and many amateur astronomers argue that it’s better not to use a telescope until you learn how to recognize the signposts in the broad sky,” said Kosicki. “You just need a desire to see — and start to understand — the rest of the universe beyond our own tiny planet.”
Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.