With clear skies, and several places on the island with little to no light pollution, St. Croix offers perfect conditions for stargazing. Places like Point Udall out on the East End, or Ham’s Bluff on the West End, offer some of the best conditions for observing the night sky because they are located so remotely from any businesses or residential areas. Plus, you get the added bonus of hearing the sounds of the Caribbean Sea as you gaze at the stars.
If you watch the sky throughout the year, you’ll notice the constellations shift gradually to the west. Due to the rotation of the Earth, the stars appear to move across our night sky from east to west, for the same reason that our sun appears to ‘rise’ in the east and ‘set in the west. This phenomenon is caused by Earth’s orbit around our sun. In the summer we’re looking in a different direction in space at night than we are during the winter. So, how do you know what you’re seeing amongst all those beautiful stars? What are the best conditions for observing the night sky? Do you need a telescope or not? Here are 5 tips to get you started in your quest to learn about the stars:
1. Download an App
There are several great cellphone apps that can tell you what you’re seeing up there based on your location. Here are a few to check out:
SkySafari | The SkySafari astronomy app, which starts at $5 on iOS and free on Android, lets you hold your phone to the sky to identify planets, constellations, stars and satellites.
Skyview | The Skyview app is $3 on iOS and $2 on Android, but both also have a free lite version. To use it, just point your device at the sky and you can get started identifying galaxies, stars, constellations, planets and the International Space Station. The app has night mode and an AR feature, so you can use it comfortably any time.
Star Walk 2 | The Star Walk 2 app, $3 for iOS and free for Android with in-app purchases, uses your phone’s sensors and GPS to show you a map of the night sky in real time, pinpointing the location of stars, planets, constellations, comets, the ISS and satellites. Like SkySafari, you can tap ‘Visible Tonight’ if you’re not sure where to start. The feature will tell you all upcoming astronomical events and celestial objects visible for your location.
If you’re not so tech savvy, you can pick up a star chart. Star charts were around long before there were stargazing apps for computers or smart phones. You can download and print them, or if you’re here on St. Croix and can pick up a copy of St. Croix This Week magazine you’ll find a page called ‘Sky Watch’ in the very back. This guide tells you the time of sunrise and sunset, as well as specifically what stars, planets and constellations are visible for the month.
2. Check the Moon Phase
The best time for stargazing is on a clear night when the moon is in a crescent or gibbous phase, or it’s not present in the sky at all (since moonlight can wash out everything else). The lack of light from the moon will allow the stars to appear brighter. Or, if you want to study the moon itself, the waxing or waning phases are when the moon’s shadows best reveal its texture in great detail through binoculars or a telescope.
3. Bring a Red Flashlight
You’ll want a light so you don’t fumble or trip in the darkness. For the best results, get a flashlight with a red filter since red light doesn’t effect your night vision as much as blue or white light. If you don’t have a red flashlight, you can create your own by covering your cell phone with red cellophane or paper.
4. Start with Binoculars
Binoculars are a good middle ground between the naked eye and the intense magnification of a telescope, and they don’t have to be expensive. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by much detail they can provide to get a close-up of the moon and its craters.
5. The Darker, the Better
Find a spot away from light pollution. Luckily, St. Croix has many beautiful beaches and hiking trails that provide locations distant from towns, neighborhoods and street lights. Take your time to find a spot and get comfortable, it will take about 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark and allow you to make the most of your stargazing. I find being out on a boat at night offers the best conditions for watching the stars due to the lack of light and the added bonus of the sky reflecting off of the water.
Even if you just stop and look up at the night sky anywhere here on the island, you’ll be sure to enjoy the stunning array of stars visible from St. Croix. If you want to learn more, you can also check our Calendar of Events for any upcoming sky watching events such as Astronomy by the Sea (periodically held at the St. Croix East End Marine Park). If you would like to share your star watching experience with gotostcroix.com, please hashtag us on your social media photo posts with #gotostcroix or #gotostx. Happy stargazing!
-Jennie Ogden, Editor