You’ve bought your telescope to see the moon, and you have everything set up, you are eager to get started. Then you look outside and realize it is still light out, and you wonder to yourself, when is the best time actually to go stargazing? Do I have to stay up super late? Should I wake up super early?
These are questions every beginner stargazer is going to have. The good news is, there really are no wrong answers. The best time to go stargazing takes a lot of things into account, including you. The short answer is, any time when the sun is down can be an excellent time to go stargazing. The best time depends on a lot of variables.
What Are You Trying To See?
The first thing you should figure out is what you are trying to see on a given night. The stars and planets keep their schedules, and they do not care about your schedule in the slightest. Depending on what objects you are trying to view will significantly influence what time you will want to go out and stargaze.
For example, Venus often only appears at dawn or dusk right before or after the sun rises and sets. That means, if you want to see Venus, you are not going to want to go out at midnight because it will no longer be visible in the sky.
Similarly, if you are trying to see a meteor shower, there are peak times and active times where more meteors per hour will appear. That could be just after sunset, or it could be 3 AM at your local time. It all depends on the meteor shower itself, not you.
Perhaps Jupiter will appear in concert with the moon, giving you a fantastic opportunity to view both the surface of the moon and Jupiter at the same time. However, the moon rises late and won’t peak until 1 AM. Then you are going to want to go out at that time.
Planets, constellations, and even galaxies move through the sky on their own paths and at their own speeds. You will have to look up what you are trying to see and pin down the best time at which to get a good view of it. Not planning your session around your favorite objects will leave you out in the cold when you realize that Andromeda isn’t in the sky like you thought it would be.
But, if you are not trying to see anything, in particular, the schedule becomes much more flexible.
Night Owl vs. Morning Person
If you are not trying to catch the transit of Venus at a particular time, you can pretty much stargaze whenever you feel most comfortable. The darkest hours of the night will depend on a variety of atmospheric conditions, but generally, 11 PM to 3 AM offer some of the best conditions for dark skies.
If you are someone who enjoys staying up late and doesn’t mind waiting for the sky to darken adequately, you might be someone who likes to get their sessions in around midnight. Or, if you are someone who likes to beat the sun to the punch and get up super early, there are some excellent stargazing opportunities in the dark predawn hours.
That is going to be entirely up to you.
If you are a social stargazer who likes to have people over to use the telescope or someone who likes to take their significant other out to see the stars, then you might opt for the late-night stargazing as opposed to the predawn stargazing.
It all depends on what your goal is. Whichever time makes you more comfortable could be the best time to stargaze. Remember, this is a hobby that you are meant to be enjoying. If waking up super early to stargaze is making you unhappy, try a different time.
Check The Weather
This is an important step that many new stargazers fail to do. In order to gauge the best time to see the stars, the weather is going to play a super important role. You are going to want to check for the presence of clouds in the area.
Not only do you want to check for general cloudiness, but you want to make sure that the atmosphere is relatively dry. Even high clouds you usually don’t pay attention to can block your view of the stars at night.
But it is not just clouds and inclement weather that can determine a good time to stargaze. Things such as the sunset, sunrise, and moonrise all play an essential role. Especially check the phase of the moon as well. A full moon is going to make stargazing much more complicated than a new moon.
For example, if you were planning on going out at midnight to try and catch a glimpse of a distant nebula, but the moon is to be full and high in the sky at midnight, you are not going to be able to see much.
These are things you can easily look up before planning your evening, so you do not get disappointed. It has happened to many a new astronomer that they have this whole plan to see something cool only to be thwarted by a bright moon and some high atmospheric clouds.
So, don’t forget to check out some of the best astronomy weather forecast websites to avoid disappointment.
Putting It All Together
The best time to stargaze is going to be different for everyone because it is so variable, but you can put all of these things together to find out the best time that works for you.
Decide what you want to see, look up its schedule and position in the sky. Then decide if that timeframe works for you. Double-check the weather paying attention to atmospheric clouds and the phase and position of the moon compared to your desired object.
If you do all of that, a good window for stargazing should materialize and present itself to you.