Learn about the Dark Sky

Aurora photo by Travis Novitsky

Learn about the Dark Sky

Where to Go

Get away from city lights-that is easy in the Superior National Forest!  Anywhere will provide you with views of the dark sky. Gateway communities surrounding the Forest like Tofte, Ely, and Grand Marais offer great more accessible options. Near a lake is best to give you a view to the horizon.

When to Go

  • The closer you are to new moon the better. A week before and after new moon are best when the moon is still a crescent.  You can find a moon phase calendar online or use NASA’s Sky Events Calendar.
  • Winter is best as it gets dark early in northern Minnesota, and there are no bugs! But any season will do. It does not get completely dark until an hour after sunset.

How to Look

It takes ten to thirty minutes for our eyes to adjust to darkness, and after our eyes adapt the best way to look at star charts is with a red-light flashlight. Ever wonder why vehicles have red taillights? It is because red light doesn’t affect our night-time vision as much as blue light.

What to Bring

The nice thing about stargazing is that you don’t need anything except warm clothes in winter, or bug spray in summer. Additional options:

  • Star chart
  • Red light flashlight
  • Binoculars
  • Camera
  • Telescope

What to Look For

Lie back on a sleeping bag or blanket, look up, and let your mind wander into the beauty.

  • The Milky Way- The fuzzy patches that look like clouds are actually billions of stars in the heart of our galaxy. Our solar system is located in the Orion arm about one-third of the distance from the center of our galaxy, 25,000 light years away. The center is located toward the constellation Sagittarius.
  • The International Space Station (ISS) -The space station has been in orbit since 2010 with three to six astronauts on board at a time doing research. More than 200 astronauts, from a dozen different countries, have spent six months or more on the station. It is amazing to know that there are people flying 220 miles above us at 17,500 miles per hour! Check the ISS schedule to make sure you don’t miss it!
  • Artificial Satellites - There are more than 2,000 artificial satellites orbiting our planet and you are likely to see at least one. If you see a momentary flash in the sky, it is most likely the sun reflecting off a solar-panel on a satellite.
  • Meteors - Meteors are particles, mostly the size of sand that hit our atmosphere and burn up. On occasion they are larger and land on Earth, and can even create large craters.  Meteors can be random or come in a shower that happens the same time each year as the Earth travels through the path of a former comet.   You can find annual meteor calendars online or use NASA’s Sky Events Calendar.
  • Constellations - To find the constellations you can use a phone app, but they use blue light which can make it difficult to see in the dark.
    • Download and print a monthly sky map and use a red flashlight to look at the map.
    • Find a good constellation book, astronomy magazine or website for more specifics.
    • Let your imagination wander and create your own patterns in the sky!
  • The Planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can all be seen without optical aid.  Find out the best times to see them using using an online schedule or NASA’s Sky Events Calendar.
    • Saturn- Although all the gas giants have rings, only Saturn’s are so dramatic. The rings are made of ice and rock particles from dust-sized to the size of a bus. The furthest out of the naked-eye planets, it takes 20 Earth years to make one Saturn year. The rings can be seen with a telescope. Saturn has more than 100 moons, more than any other planet.
    • Jupiter- The largest planet, and one of the gas giants, is 11 times the size of the Earth but has one of the shortest days at only 10 hours. It has the largest continuous storm in the solar system, the great red spot that is as large as three Earths.
    • Mars- The red planet is about a third the size of Earth and takes 2 of our years to revolve around the sun. Although Mars has an atmosphere, it is very thin and cold, with a temperature averaging -100 degrees F. The polar ice caps can be seen through a telescope.
    • Venus- The planet is similar-sized to Earth and closer to the sun. Venus is called the morning and evening star because it can be seen around sunset or sunrise. Since it is closer to the sun, it has phases like the moon. Venus rotates backwards so the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. The planet is covered in acidic clouds and the temperature on the surface is 900 degrees Fahrenheit.
    • Mercury- The planet is the smallest, about a third the size of Earth and takes only 88 days to revolve around the sun, but a day lasts 176 of our days. Since it is closer to the sun than Earth, like Venus it has phases.

      More information about the planets, including those that need a telescope to see (Uranus, Neptune and Pluto) can be found via NASA Solar System Exploration.
  • Northern Lights- Our Sun has an eleven-year cycle of energy variation. At solar maximum more solar particles hit our atmosphere and interact with Earth’s magnetic field creating stronger and brighter aurora borealis.  An aurora forecast can be found through NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.
  • The Moon- If the moon is too bright to see many stars, the moon is interesting too! Do you see the rabbit in the moon, the craters? Only 12 people have landed on the moon, and 12 other astronauts orbited the moon.  The moon is drifting 1.5 inches further away from our planet every year. It was created when a Mars sized rock hit Earth 4.5 billion years ago.

There are many opportunities for stargazing within or around the Superior National Forest.  As an attestation to the stargazing throughout the Forest, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) was designated a dark sky sanctuary in September 2020 by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). Dark skies seen from the Superior National Forest result from this large protected wilderness area, and stargazing is one way to appreciate the dark skies and stars while having minimal impact on the land.  See Leave No Trace for more information. 

Milky Way photo by Travis Novitsky

Thank you to Travis Novitsky Photography for use of his photos!