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Can I do any stargazing in Chicago?
August 6, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I now have access to a rooftop and am thinking of getting some kind of telescope. Will I be able to see anything of interest in the sky from the middle of Chicago? I've read the light pollution and air pollution in the city causes problems. If this is doable, what is a good entry-level telescope for a beginner under $500 or so? Any books, Web pages, etc., on this would be appreciated too.

— HorseloverFat, via the Straight Dope Message Board

Cecil replies:

You read right, Fat. The big city isn't the ideal place for viewing stars, owing to the unfortunate phenomenon known as skyglow or light pollution. This is the long-running project by which we earthlings propose to illuminate the solar system with streetlights and McDonald's signs. Maybe the sun isn't too worried at this point, but we're definitely gaining on it. That's given rise to the "dark sky" movement, and I'm telling you, once we get health care, the economy, and Obama's birthplace squared away, we need to jump on it. Meanwhile, not to worry. Though your rooftop is not, as a general proposition, optimal for viewing, your local electrical utility is, on the other hand, Com Ed. High wind comes along, blammo! Good chance the neighborhood will be blacked out for days. Not so great for your fridge contents, but helpful for scoping out Cassiopeia. Between outages, you still have lots of sky-watching options, some of which admittedly involve a little travel. Don't let that put you off. Speaking as someone who used to sit on an aluminum lawn chair in the yard and watch satellites go by, I can tell you this is something you really want to do.

First a rant, summoned up by that lawn-chair memory. We're long past the point when a reflective balloon 1,000 miles up would rivet the attention of the nation. (I'm thinking of Echo 1, launched in 1960.) Still, it was a cool thing to see. Likewise, it was fun to stand in the backyard in 1975 — I grant you this was in Tucson, not Chicago — and watch shooting stars.  You can't do either of those things now, certainly not in Chicago, and according to a friend who lives there, not so easily in Tucson. That's because of the aforementioned light pollution. (Here's a closeup view of Chicago and points west.) Brightness of the sky due to artificial lighting has increased exponentially since 1947 (math geeks can check out the chart on page 43 of this book) — far faster than the increase in population. A big contributor is bright street lighting. You may say: But we need all that light, lest the criminals run rampant in our streets! No, we don't. Even if you buy the idea that neighborhood security depends on your being able to read a book under the sodium vapor lamps at midnight, the light that goes up rather than down is a complete waste. Never mind that you can't see the stars, we're wasting a ton of money on a problem easily solved by better lighting design. Believe me, it's the next green cause.

OK, Fat, back to you. For technical advice I contacted Chicago Astronomer Joe, a facilitator at the Adler Planetarium, which among other things means he gets to operate the telescopes — in my book one of the coolest gigs there is. We addressed the following questions:

1. Best place to view stars close to home.

In 1960 your rooftop would have done you just fine. Today not so much, unless you're living in the middle of the forest preserves. It's a good spot to observe the moon, though, and as luck would have it there's a partial lunar eclipse tonight (August 6), so grab that lawn chair. Or better yet, considering it'll last an hour and a half or so, grab a blanket, a jug of wine, and somebody you wouldn't mind getting horizontal with. The peak of the Perseid meteor shower is August 12, although the waning moon will help obscure whatever the skyglow doesn't. The next big meteor shower is the Leonids, peaking November 17th to 18th. Can't wait that long? No problem. Joe tells me:

Planets can be seen from Chicago just about every night of the year. Mars with ice caps, Jupiter with its bands, Great Red Spot and satellites, Saturn with her haunting rings, Venus and Mercury showing phases like the moon, Neptune blue and Uranus green. We have been lucky recently, catching a handful of bright comets, easily seen with the naked eye, which were visible in the glare of our bright skyline.

2. Best place to view stars that's not so close but still a day trip.

Joe's list, in rough order of proximity:

  • The lakefront, especially Northerly Island — that's where they put the planetarium, right? A drawback is that you have a large city immediately to the west, which, as you can see from the photo, makes things pretty bright.

  • The Little Red School House in Willow Springs, a well-known local viewing spot that is, in fact, surrounded by forest preserves.

  • Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, or if you really want to be out in the middle of nowhere, U.S. 41 in Indiana south of Kentland.

  • Kankakee/Bourbonnais area, off I-57. 

  • Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan.

  • Benton Harbor/Saint Joseph, Michigan.

  • Door County, Wisconsin.

  • Frankfort, Michigan — beautiful spot, I agree. However, it's a six-hour drive.

  • Upper Peninsula, Michigan. It's a fur piece. However, they don't have a lot of lights there; they barely have electricity.

3. Best amateur equipment.

I won't tarry on this subject. You can see plenty with the naked eye given the right viewing locale. A step up from there is binoculars. Here's Joe:

A pair of 8x45s or10x50s are good enough to show open star clusters and a myriad of rich star fields. They are also good for the International Space Station, the space shuttle, and satellite chasing.

If you must have a telescope, Joe recommends a 6-inch Dobsonian reflector, which uses a concave mirror to capture the odd photon from light-years away. Available for under $400.

4. Best place with professional equipment that will let you use it.

Joe naturally touts the Adler Planetarium:

We have the largest telescope in Chicago — a 20-inch Cassegrain reflector housed in the Doane Observatory at the rear of the Planetarium. Thousands of visitors have climbed the ladder and peeked through the eyepiece. Coming this fall, facilitators will operate the observatory the first Thursday of each month for public sessions.

Other options: Dearborn Observatory on Northwestern University's Evanston campus, open for public observing using its 18.5-inch refracting telescope every Friday, and Ryerson Observatory at the University of Chicago, also open for public viewing, although you're advised to call ahead.

5. Best time of year for stargazing.

The dead of winter, when "the skies are steady, clear, crisp, and deep" (Joe again). I grant you this complicates the blanket and jug of wine scenario.

6. Best astronomy clubs.

OK, I shouldn't say best, but here are some names I collected:

7. Best reason to do this.

This is something else I don't need to tell you, Fat, because you knew enough to ask in the first place. But the average city person nowadays thinks the Milky Way is a candy bar, whereas in fact it's the galaxy in which we reside. Faint under the best of circumstances, it's why you want to make the trip up to the UP, or to anyplace that's really, really dark.  A good set of eyes is all you need to see it; equipment would just get in the way. It spans the entire great bowl of the sky. Depending on your cast of mind, it inspires awe, and wonder, and loneliness. Or at least a heartfelt far out.

— Cecil Adams
Top photo by Pat O'Neil; bottom photo courtesy Joe Guzman

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