The Best Celestial Events and Viewing Spots in Our Area

There’s no better time to polish your telescope and let the kids stay up a bit later. There are a number of celestial events taking place this summer and we still have our fingers crossed for another surprise aurora occurrence.

From breathtaking meteor showers to planetary alignments, the heavens promise a spectacular show. Here’s your guide to the best stargazing locations, upcoming astronomical events, and tips on how to make the most of your sky-watching experience this summer.

Top Stargazing Locations in our Area

1.  Dark Sky Parks: Virginia State Parks has four parks designated as International Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA)—Staunton River State Park, James River State Park, and the recently added Natural Bridge and Sky Meadows State Parks.

2.  Claytor Nature Center: Located in Bedford, the Claytor Nature Center is a 491-acre oasis that’s tucked away near the mountains. They also have the Belk Astronomical Observatory for incredible stargazing opportunities.

3.  Blue Ridge Parkway: As we learned during the aurora phenomenon in May, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers prime stargazing and nighttime visibility away from any light pollution. Just be mindful driving on the windy roads in the dark.

Upcoming Astronomical Events

July 28-29: Delta Aquarids Meteor Shower Peak – The Delta Aquarids can produce up to 20 meteors per hour at its peak. It is produced by debris left behind by comets Marsden and Kracht. The shower runs annually from July 12 to August 23 but peaks this year on the night of July 28 and morning of July 29. The second quarter moon will block many of the fainter meteors this year, but if you are patient, you should still be able to catch some in a dark location after midnight. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Aquarius but can appear anywhere in the sky.

August 11-13: Perseid Meteor Shower Peak – The Perseid meteor shower, one of the most anticipated events of the year, will peak around August 11-13. During its peak, stargazers can expect to see up to 60 meteors per hour. The best viewing time is after midnight, and it’s advisable to find a dark spot away from city lights.

September 8: Saturn at Opposition – On September 8, Saturn will be at opposition, meaning it will be directly opposite the Sun in the sky. This is the best time to view and photograph the ringed planet as it will be its brightest and most visible. A telescope will enhance this experience, revealing Saturn’s rings and some of its moons.

August 19: Full Moon – The full moon in August, known as the Sturgeon Moon, will illuminate the night sky. While the brightness of the full moon can hinder the visibility of other celestial objects, it provides a perfect opportunity for moon-gazing and lunar photography.

DIY Guide for Stargazing

Building a Simple Telescope: For those new to stargazing, constructing a simple telescope can enhance the experience. You’ll need two lenses: a convex lens (with a focal length of about 1000mm) and an eyepiece lens (with a focal length of about 25mm). Mount these lenses in a cardboard tube, ensuring they are aligned correctly. This basic telescope can magnify celestial objects and make features of the moon and planets more discernible.

Using Star Identification Apps: Modern technology offers several apps to assist in identifying stars and constellations:

• Star Walk 2: This app uses augmented reality to show the stars and constellations in real-time. Simply point your phone at the sky and explore.

• SkySafari: With detailed information on planets, stars, and celestial events, SkySafari is perfect for both beginners and experienced stargazers.

• Night Sky: This app not only identifies stars but also provides notifications for upcoming celestial events.  

Tips for Optimal Viewing

• Dark Adaptation: Allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness for about 20-30 minutes before stargazing.

• Weather Check: Clear skies are essential, so check the weather forecast and choose a night with minimal cloud cover.

• Comfort: Bring a blanket or reclining chair, and dress warmly as summer nights can get cool.

• Safety: Always let someone know where you are going and take a buddy with you. Do not trespass on private property and do not drive while tired.

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