On November 12 and 13, the Moon will be full and near its perigee, or its closest orbital approach to Planet Earth, a combination that has recently entered public awareness as a “supermoon.” During a “supermoon” the full moon appears slightly larger than usual: at its closest approach to Earth, the full moon looks around seven percent wider than average.
Sound anticlimactic? It is, a little. But the term “Slightly Larger Than Average Moon” probably wouldn’t generate as many page views for the astrology sites that came up with the term.
That’s right: the Supermoon idea originated among astrologers, not astronomers. As astrologer Richard Nolle originally coined it in 1979, the term “Supermoon” originally meant either a full or a new moon at its closest approach to Earth. If you asked an astronomer to come up with a term for that set of conditions, she’d probably call it something long the lines of “perigee-syzygy.“ “Perigee” as we said above, is the Moon’s closest approach to Earth; “syzygy” is when three or more astronomical objects are roughly lined up, which happens during every full or new moon.
Aside from eclipses of either the sun or moon, which happen only when the Sun, Earth, and Moon are in syzygy, or transits of the sun, when another planet lines up between the Earth and Sun, astronomers generally only get excited about syzygy when they have an opportunity to use it in Scrabble, especially if a triple word score tile is involved. In astrology, contrariwise, a supermoon is apparently a big deal.
But you don’t have to care about astrology to appreciate a bigger-than-usual full moon. All you need is a good place to park yourself on the Earth’s surface.
Moderately good vision is a plus, of course, and you can boost whatever vision you have with lenses, ranging from army surplus binoculars to telescopes with price tags as astronomical as the heavenly bodies at which you point them.
We’ve taken care of the first part for you, with our list of 64 southern California stargazing sites. Use the map to find a site close to you, check out our listing for the site, and see if it might not be a worthwhile place for supermoon viewing.
Once you get there, you may find you have even the most popular stargazing sites all to yourself. A big bright full moon interferes with viewing other heavenly bodies, just by washing out the sky a little. But you might find yourself joining a moon-gazing crowd instead. And as with any pastime, there are mistakes beginners can make that can interfere with your enjoyment, or the enjoyment of others nearby. With stargazing in particular, there are a couple bad practices that can actually cause significant damage to expensive equipment, or even personal injury.
So here are some Best Stargazing Practices for you to keep in mind whether you’re heading out to enjoy the Supermoon, or planning a trip two weeks after to explore the dark, moonless skies of Southern California.
Be careful to protect people’s night vision.
Human eyes take some time to adjust to darkness: it can be as long as half an hour after exposure to bright light before our irises relax to full light-admitting mode. Stargazers rely on night vision to spot stars, planets, and other astronomical objects. Even when looking at a bright full moon, night vision can allow the observer to pick out fine detail through a telescope that might be lost to someone who just got out of a brightly lit room.
Avid stargazers know that red light interferes less with night vision, and specialty stores and websites sell red flashlight lenses for just this purpose: to allow people to use see where they’re going without blinding everyone at the star party.
Don’t bring a headlamp to a star party. Just don’t.
Even if you don’t shell out for a red lens, you can protect your night vision and that of those around you by refraining from using a flashlight, or pointing it directly at the ground if you absolutely need to use it. When approaching a stargazing site in a car, be mindful of where you point your headlights. Especially don’t point them in the direction of the telescopes and then leave them on as you rummage through the back seat for your water bottle.
And don’t expect to be able to use a headlamp at a star party. You know, the kind that sits on your forehead, blinding everyone who faces you directly? Just don’t.
The same goes for other forms of illumination. I was at a star party some years ago where a novice eagerly showed off the star map app on his phone, pushing it into the faces of everyone else there on one occasion or another. His screen was bright, and there was much ill-tempered grumbling at his inadvertent sabotage of people’s night vision. Some apps have a red mode to lessen the damage, which is helpful. But that help may be negated by the screens you have to navigate through to get to the app. Consider saving smartphone app use for afterward.
Meanwhile, stargazers in the know who need to use laptops or tablets for stargazing notes on a regular basis will often bring a thick beachtowel or similar cloth shield to keep from inflicting night vision damage on others around them.
Leave the laser pointers at home
This is related to the night blindness issue, but with the added possibility of actual permanent vision damage. Some experienced star party leaders will use laser pointers to direct people’s attention to a particular part of the night sky. The beam illuminates dust particles along its path, providing a visual aid much more helpful than pointing a finger in total darkness.
But laser pointers can cause eye damage even to people in brightly lit rooms. When your irises are fully dilated and allow more light in, that damage can be even worse. People who’ve led stargazing events for some time develop reflexes that help them avoid accidentally pointing their lasers in your face. Unless you’re practiced, you’re better off not bringing that pointer along.
At least not without asking the owners of any nearby optics. Your cigarette smoke can leave a layer of oil and dust on lenses that can be hard to clean off. Same goes for campfires, which can also pollute the night with bright light. At least walk away a few hundred feet before lighting up. And that goes for smokables other than just tobacco.
Use your stargazing voice
You know that thing when you’re driving in a dark neighborhood listening to loudish music and looking for a particular address, and most of the houses’ street numbers are hard to make out, and so you turn the radio down so you can see better? Noise can make it difficult to focus when you’re trying to observe faint, dim objects. Speaking in quiet tones will help other people get more out of their stargazing.
Obviously, if your supermoon viewing party is taking place in your backyard and the invites you sent out specifically mentioned alcohol and hollering as planned activities, this one doesn’t necessarily apply. But at organized events not in your yard, plan to spend the evening without amplified music, loud shouting, or bullhorn use.
Leave your rambunctiousness at home
It’s dark out. You’re in somewhat unfamiliar surroundings. The footing might be uncertain. There are large tubes of glass and mirrors standing atop tripods, some of them connected to power sources or nearby computers by means of dark cables. Some of those assemblages of telescopes, tripods, and cables cost tens of thousands of dollars. Some of them are sturdy enough that they’ll injure you if you run into them.
If you’re in the company of other stargazers whom you’ve just met, expect to move slowly and methodically among them to avoid embarrassing and potentially expensive mishaps.
And while you should by all means introduce any children to which you may have access to the practice of stargazing, keep their level of impatience, fatigue, frustration, and poor impulse control in mind as the night progresses.
And leave your dog at home, probably.
One last “don’t” before we get to the “do”s:
Don’t twiddle the knobs without asking
People who sink lots of money into amateur astronomy gear are often eager to share what it reveals with stargazing BFFs, even if you're a BFF they met just 10 minutes ago. They’re also going to be a whole lot better at adjusting their equipment for clear viewing than you are. If you’re invited to look through someone else’s scope, resist the temptation to adjust the focus without asking. Chances are, if they’re letting you look through their scope, they’ll be happy to adjust it for you.
And now the things you absolutely SHOULD do:
DO ask questions
Whether it’s basic questions like “what am I supposed to be seeing in this scope” and “why does the moon look upside down in this viewfinder,” or more specific questions about the distance and size of stars, nebulae, and planets you’re viewing, ask those questions. Don’t be shy. The amateur astronomer community values education, and people wouldn’t organize star parties if they didn’t want to answer questions. If you’re not at a planned event but inadvertently near a group of stargazers, the same might well hold true, especially if they strike up conversation or invite you to look through their scopes.
Because let’s face it: those of us who avidly pursue stargazing include a very high percentage of nerds relative to the community at large, and there’s nothing we nerds like more than fielding questions we know the answers to. Except sometimes for fielding questions we realize we don't know the answers to.
DO bring along friends who haven’t stargazed before
Whether it’s to look at a “supermoon,” watch rocks fall out of the sky during one of this planet’s seven major annual meteor showers, or to admire the glory of the increasingly unfamiliar Milky Way from an especially dark place, looking at the sky is an increasingly rare pastime — ironic, given that almost every member of our species used to do it on a daily basis. More people who enjoy stargazing means more people willing to advocate for dark skies. And you may just introduce your friend to something that will become a life-long passion.
DO go out and look at the sky even if there’s nothing special going on
Because there’s always something going on. Meteors fall from the sky without checking to see if there’s a shower in process. The dark edge of the moon will slip across the sky, hiding one star after another. Planets move across the field of stars a little each night. The seemingly static constellations swim laps around the calendar: Orion will rise a little earlier each autumn night, his dog Canis Major nipping at his heels.
And even in the brightest parts of Southern California, there are places you can watch it all happen.