Editor’s note: This story was originally published in The Sacramento Bee on July 4, 2014. It has been updated.
To observe one of the best long-running shows, presented in a spacious, cool theater, open to all and at reasonable prices, just wait till it’s dark – then look up.
With the combination of dependably clear skies, cooling evening breezes and plenty of nearby dark places, the greater Sacramento area is ideal for stargazing, that ancient practice of considering the cosmos. And conditions for Wednesday night’s Perseid meteor shower could hardly be better.
“Sacramento is the sunniest place on earth in the summer,” said Christopher Taylor, professor of physics and astronomy at California State University, Sacramento. That sunny character translates into night skies dependably unobstructed by clouds. “We have plenty of clear nights.”
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And comfortable, too. Though the average high temperature in Sacramento from mid-June to mid-September ranges from 88 degrees up to 93, then back to 88, summer lows during that same period vary little, rising from 58 to 61 degrees, then back.
Tack on the gentle kiss of – depending upon one’s choice of gazing venues – ocean, Delta or mountain breezes, and conditions approach perfection.
Taylor, who earned his doctorate in astrophysics, is part intellectual expert on the cosmos, part fan of great-looking constellations and Jupiter’s moons. The man knows a good night sky.
“I once saw Mercury when I was leading a group at Camp Pollack (on the bank of the American River north of downtown Sacramento),” Taylor said, noting the rarity of the sighting. “It was the first time I ever saw it.”
That viewing required a telescope, but generally, other than the moon, planets – Jupiter, Mars, Saturn and Venus – are easiest to spot without binoculars or telescopes. Add optics to the experience, and more identifiable objects come into view.
Taylor said even an inexpensive set of binoculars can turn a summer stargazing session into something special.
“If you have someone stabilize them, you can see the four moons of Jupiter,” Taylor said, suggesting the benefits of sharing the experience with a friend – or a tripod.
The Milky Way – our home galaxy – also provides a vast, varied viewing opportunity. Considering our solar system’s position toward the edge of the Milky Way, the soft swath of light visible to the naked eye represents just a portion of the galaxy. Viewing augmented with binoculars or telescope changes the experience from seeing indistinguishable light from billions of stars into regarding points of light as far-off individuals.
“The same as Galileo saw in 1609-10; that’s part of the attraction,” Taylor said.
Among the most popular nighttime shows are meteor showers. And even though occasional meteors can be seen nearly every night, some events call for planning. Several fire-in-the-sky events are significant enough to have been named, including the Perseid meteor shower, which is expected to pepper the sky from Wednesday night until Thursday morning, when the sun takes over again..
Several websites – skymaps.com, startdate.org, among others – provide date-specific charts of the night sky, pointing out visible constellations, stars, planets and satellites and the International Space Station, showing their positions and providing times when viewing is best. Accuweather.com and other weather sites provide information about cloud cover and other atmospheric conditions.
It also pays to know the moon’s phases, since the closer the moon is to full, the more reflected light it casts, obscuring celestial details otherwise within sight.
As for where to go for best viewing, Taylor says just get out of town because city lights take much of the detail out of the night sky. From the bucolic valley fields extending all directions from Sacramento, to the higher altitudes of the Sierras to the beaches of the Northern California coastline, plenty of dark places allow a view of the night sky’s stark beauty.
To experience the best of it, all that’s required are a new moon, a comfortable perch where few people live and artificial lights are rare, a sharp eye (and whatever equipment one prefers) and a desire to see and appreciate what humans have seen and pondered for as long as there have been humans.