With the recent Solar Eclipse, interest has peaked into star gazing, and Great Falls Montana is one of the best spots to gaze into the galaxy. With low city light pollution, you can view the sky with an unobstructed view without leaving Great Falls. There’s never a bad time of year to star gaze, but what you will see varies by season.
Late summer skies offer the best time to view the Perseid meteor shower, and this has been a favored event in our family for years. Every year in mid-August, we stay up late and drive north on Highway 87 for 15 minutes. My husband has a favorite spot to pull over and we watch the near-constant stream of meteors.
The Central Montana Astronomy Society provides a place for star gazers to exchange ideas and techniques and provides an atmosphere to share a common interest of the cosmos. From September through April, the CMAS hosts Star Parties at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Stop by to look through a variety of high-end telescopes to see planets, millions of stars, and more. During star parties, the CMAS provides learning table for kids, movies for the whole family, and provides one-on-one star viewing.
Every November, the Leonids deliver a late-fall meteor shower that occurs when the Earth passes through the debris left by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which takes 33 years to orbit around the Sun. From our own backyard during the peak, we have seen as many as 20 meteors an hour, so if the Leonids interest you, bring warm clothes and a watchful eye!
In the spring, as the earth begins to bloom and renew, star gazers can see bright stars from winter constellations linger in the western sky about 30-45 minutes after sunset. Capella in the northwestern sky is especially striking, as are the twin stars Castor and Pollux above the western horizon. The stars of the Big Dipper are easy to find this time of year, and they will help you find other constellations during your stargazing adventures!
The Northern Lights, those famous and elusive dancing lights are coming to Montana in 2017! The best opportunity to view the Northern Lights under the Big Sky will be from September 2017 through March 2018. Then, the chances of witnessing the awesome sight of the lights get a bit slimmer every year until 2025. The bright dancing lights of the aurora are collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. In Great Falls, your best chance to see the lights is to drive beyond the immediate city limits about 15-20 miles on an evening with clear skies, little to no wind, and no precipitation. Vaughn, Cascade, and Belt are easy drives from Great Falls and offer high visibility. My husband uses the Aurora Service site to determine the best time for us to venture outside in the hopes of seeing a truly amazing site! Using real-time solar wind data, the site displays with reasonable accuracy how the aurora will behave up to one hour in advance!
Winters in Montana, while cold, present a unique opportunity to stargaze. What you trade for warmth you more than make up for in clear skies, calm winds, and an abundance of darkness to peer into space. I took the photo of an ice halo (left) on a clear and cool winter morning, a phenomenon that portends a unique opportunity for winter star gazers, because an ice halo can only be seen in calm and clear winter skies. After I sent the ice halo image to my husband, he set up our telescope in the back yard. That night, for a good 45 minutes, we star gazed with cocoa in one hand and the telescope in the other. What we saw from our backyard, just minutes from Downtown Great Falls, was incredible. The clear winter sky allowed us to see planets, stars, and the iconic outline of the Milky Way.
Star gazing is a fun activity for the whole family, and there are plenty of apps that make it easy to find what you want; I’ve loved using the SkyGuide app, which shows you where planets, specific stars, and even satellites are located. The app is easy to use – you point your phone to the sky, and the on-screen guide illuminates the sky in a way you’ve never seen! In the northern hemisphere, if you point your phone toward the ground, you will see which stars and constellations our southern hemisphere friends can see!
With Great Falls presenting unique star gazing opportunities, we invite you to plan a stay that includes a long look at planetary treasures in our nighttime sky. The unspoiled landscape of Great Falls provides for an unforgettable experience of looking into our vast universe. In the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, we invite you to “keep looking up!”