Best times to view the Milky Way

Best times to view the Milky Way

Milky Way

The Milky Way, Earth’s home galaxy, is a spiral galaxy with a disk of stars spanning more than 100,000 light years. Our solar system, located along one of the galaxy’s spiral arms, takes about 240 million years to complete one orbit around the Milky Way. While Earth is part of this galaxy, we don’t always have the opportunity to see its central disk spread across the sky.

This appears as a faint, milky band of light, visible between February and October in the United States. For many Americans, the best time to view the Milky Way is during the first two weeks of July. After July 13, the next favorable period occurs in early August.

While seeing the Milky Way is not as rare as spotting an eclipse, it is often more difficult due to light pollution and other environmental factors. You might need to take a road trip to a less populated area for an optimal experience. The visibility of the Milky Way varies by region, but generally, it should be visible across the entire U.S. around the same set of days.

For the best view, the sky needs to be quite dark, with minimal light pollution. The prime viewing period is the five days before and after a new moon. This year, the new moon falls on the evening of July 5 and the morning of July 6, making this an excellent time to spot the Milky Way.

Once the moon reaches about 50% brightness around July 13, the visibility diminishes significantly until the next new moon. Here are the specific timelines for viewing the Milky Way on the evening of July 5 into the morning of July 6, using local times:

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– Pacific Northwest: 11:35 p.m. to 2:55 a.m. (three hours and 20 minutes)
– West Coast: 10:17 p.m. to 4:06 a.m. (five hours and 49 minutes)
– East Coast: 10:54 p.m. to 3:35 a.m. (four hours and 41 minutes)

Generally, the further south and east you go, the more time you’ll have to see and photograph the Milky Way.

Optimal times for Milky Way viewing

To have the best chance of seeing the Milky Way, aim to get as far from light pollution as possible. Areas like Nevada, Utah, and other regions with low population density are excellent choices. Higher elevations also provide clearer views, as you’ll be above denser layers of air and potential ground obstructions like fog.

Traveling to places over 5,000 feet in elevation, such as certain areas in Utah, can make a significant difference. Surprisingly, you don’t need a telescope or binoculars to see the Milky Way. However, magnification devices can offer a closer look at specific details.

The key factors for viewing the Milky Way are darkness and elevation. Additionally, if you’re interested in photographing the galaxy, you’ll need a fast lens with a low f-stop, a camera capable of long exposures, a sturdy tripod, and a good amount of patience to get the focus just right. Look out for moon calendars to plan your Milky Way sightings effectively.

The last few days of July and the first week of August are the next best opportunities after mid-July. Subsequent good sighting periods include the last few days of August and the first week of September. For more detailed planning, consider using a Milky Way calendar from websites like Capture the Atlas, which offers annual calendars tailored to your location.

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Don’t miss this opportunity to marvel at our cosmic neighborhood. Get away from city lights, find a dark spot, and enjoy the breathtaking view of the Milky Way.


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