Want to see the Northern Lights AND the Milky Way? Those in the northern U.S. states–and even in cities including New York and Boston–could have some extraordinary luck this weekend. The NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center is predicting a G1 or G2 Geomagnetic Storm for both Saturday and Sunday nights.
Where to see the northern lights this weekend
The aurora borealis are possible overhead in the U.S. states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Maine according to abc57. Although they’re not nearly as well placed, cities including Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago, Milwaukee, South Bend, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New York City and Boston could also get a glimpse of a “forest fire” layer of green above the northern horizon.
How to see the Milky Way
Even if the northern lights don’t materialize, or take their time, this weekend is a fine time to look for the Milky Way while you wait. The rules for finding the Milky Way are pretty simple. Just wait for a New Moon in summer and go to where people are not. That scenario happens for the final time of 2019 this weekend. It’s a last chance for galaxy-gazers and night-scape photographers to gawp at our home galaxy.
While the Milky Way will be visible to the south, the northern lights will–as the name suggests–be in the north (with a little luck).
When to see the Milky Way and the northern lights
This weekend is perfect for seeing both because there’s a New Moon. Technically it’s a “Supermoon New Moon” because it’s relatively close to Earth. However, its only relevance is that there will be no bright moonlight in the sky. The New Moon occurs on Friday, August 30, but for a good few days after there is no significant moonlight.
This is the tail-end of late August’s “stargazing window,” (when the moon is down), but as a bonus, if you get to your observing location around sunset on Saturday, Sunday or Monday, you may see a beautifully slim crescent moon setting in the western sky soon after the Sun.
The ideal time to look at the Milky Way is when it’s arching overhead. That occurs in the northern hemisphere from around 10 p.m. through until about 1 a.m. Before that, and after that, it will be at an angle and closer to the horizon, which makes it more difficult to appreciate. However, true darkness is limited at this time of year, so for best results have a look around 11 p.m. to midnight.
For the northern lights, the prediction for this weekend is more general, and there are no specific times to look. It will be best to be outside after dark, and for as long as possible.
Wherever you plan to go, do check the weather forecast, as well as the space weather forecast. You need clear skies to see anything at all.
Where to see the Milky Way and the northern lights
Anywhere with an inky-black dark sky. Unfortunately, the combined light of billions of stars can easily be smudged-out by artificial light pollution. However, don’t ever use light pollution as an excuse. You just need to make a little effort, which will be well rewarded if the the skies are clear.
As a rule of thumb, anywhere about 40 miles from a significant town or city (or other major source of light pollution) will be ideal. However, just as important for you to see the bright core of the Milky Way is to look for a location that has no sources of light pollution to the south. It’s above the southern horizon that the Milky Way will impress most. Thankfully, there are a number of websites to help you choose a place to view from:
- Light Pollution Map for the entire planet
- Dark Sky Finder app
- Dark Site Finder
- IDA’s Find a Dark Sky Place (the International Dark Sky Association’s network of Dark Sky Parks across the world)
Beware the ‘Supermoon New Moon’
Although a visit to a south-facing coastal location may be tempting for a view of the Milky Way over the ocean (a reliably dark place, and great for interesting photographic compositions), note that the Supermoon New Moon will cause “king” tides this weekend. So be sure to study tide times for wherever on our planet you go, and tread carefully.
How to see the Milky Way and the northern lights
You need to give your eyes a little time to adjust to darkness. Although you may get a “wow” moment when you step out of the car having driven to a dark sky site, and see the Milky Way above you, it’s still worth switching-off all lights and simply standing in the dark for 20 minutes. After that time your eyes will have adjusted to the dark and will let more light in. Ditto for a subdued display of the northern lights. However, beware the smartphone; even a quick peek at a planetarium app will destroy your night vision. The Milky Way will be gradually revealed to you, but it can be quickly snatched away.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
I’m an experienced science, technology and travel journalist interested in space exploration, moon-gazing, exploring the night sky, solar and lunar eclipses, astro-travel, wildlife conservation and nature. I’m the editor of WhenIsTheNextEclipse.com and the author of “A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide” (Springer, 2015), as well as many eclipse-chasing guides.