March 3, 2024

Starry Nights: Catch the Comet!

Stellar spots for summer sky-watching in Northern Michigan
By Ross Boissoneau | July 18, 2020

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s … Comet NEOWISE? That’s right — the comet discovered less than four months ago is now lighting up the northwest portion of the night sky. It will be visible to sky-watchers here on earth through mid-August.

So where are the best places to observe it — and the millions of stars, planets, and outer space phenomena like NEOWISE and meteor showers? Fortunately for those of us who live in this region, most anywhere.

“Northern Michigan is a great place to view the stars, really anywhere north of Mt. Pleasant,” said Jerry Dobek. Dobek is a science and math instructor at Northwestern Michigan College, including astronomy courses.

Of course, it’s not always easy to see them, particularly in areas with lighted signs, traffic signals, office buildings and other sources of light pollution. “Up here it’s a pretty good sky if you get away from Traverse City,” said Bob Moler. Moler is a fixture on Interlochen Public Radio with his daily “Ephemeris” program, on which he shares on sunrise, sunset and astronomical insights.

He first became fascinated with the skies as a youngster, and he’s followed through with that fascination for some 70 years. “It was a long time ago, pre-Sputnik. I was always interested in science. My mother knew the constellations,” he said.

Fast-forward some 30 years, and the Grand Rapids native had moved north. After becoming part of a Grand Rapids astronomy club, he helped establish the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society, as well as teaching an astronomy course at NMC. And in 1975, his show Ephemeris debuted on IPR.

It was just seven years later that Rogers Observatory opened, one of two observatories in this area. But due to the pandemic, neither Rogers nor Lanphier Observatory in Leelanau County are welcoming visitors or hosting viewings. 

All is not lost, however. Dobek has used the downtime well. “The pandemic breeds innovation,” he said, and in this case, he’s been able to modify low-light security video cameras and mount one on the telescope at Rogers Observatory. By hooking into Wi-Fi, he’s been able to stream the images.

“I can send to and iPad and with Zoom meeting can share the screen with others,” said Dobek. To his knowledge, that has not been done in any observatory classroom elsewhere. Still, there are options for viewing on your own. Northern Express and Dobek recommend:

THE HEADLANDS DARK SKY PARK
One of only two internationally designated dark sky parks in Michigan, The Headlands outside Mackinaw City is still a prime spot to see the stars. The grounds, trails, and viewing areas are open 24 hours a day, every day. Due to the pandemic, however, the park is limiting the number of vehicles allowed inside to ensure the safety of all visitors and staff. When its 67-space parking lot is filled to capacity, additional vehicles will have to wait at the Headlands entrance. Warning: Parking outside the park’s entrance and walking in is not permitted.

Visitors are encouraged to stay up through the night and into the early morning hours for the best night-sky-viewing opportunities. Many of the Sky Park’s planned events have been canceled, but there are still some music events scheduled at its outdoor amphitheater. For complete details, go to MiDarkSkyPark.org or visit the Headlands Dark Sky Park Facebook page.

THE STRAITS — AND THE LAKES
If you have the skills and a boat equipped to moor on a larger inland lake (farther from house and deck lights) or the big water at night, you could have the best view of all. You can rent a boat from one of several rental services around the region, though some only offer overnight if you pay for three days. 

An easier option may be a Night Sky Cruise on the Straits of Mackinac. Shepler’s offers five more such events this summer, with narration provided by night sky expert and star lore historian Mary Stewart Adams (see page TK for more information). They depart from and return to Mackinaw City at various times, depending on the cruise. Go to sheplersferry.com/cruise/night-sky-cruises for more information.

SLEEPING BEAR DUNES
Not surprisingly, Dobek said just about anywhere at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a prime place to see the stars. “It’s so secluded. There are a lot of wide-open spaces,” he said, from the top of the dunes to the shore along Glen Haven. He suggested parking at the Dune Climb and stretching out on a lawn chair or chaise, though he said you lose some of the horizon unless you climb the dune.

Pre-pandemic, the park rangers and members of the GTAS hosted star-watching parties. Dobek said it is such an excellent place for star-watching that there is a move afoot to have the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park join the Headlands and Dr. T.K. Lawless Park in Cass County as one of Michigan’s internationally recognized Dark Sky Parks.

SIX STELLAR STATE PARKS
Though without the esteemed international designation, several state parks in the state do sport an official Dark Sky Preserve: Wilderness State Park in Emmet County; Thompson’s Harbor State Park and Rockport Recreation Area, both in Presque Isle County, on the eastern tip of the “Mitten”; Port Crescent State Park in Huron County (at the tip of the “Thumb”; Negwegon State Park in Alcona, just south of Alpena, and Lake Hudson Recreation Area, in Lenawee County, near the Ohio line. (Fun fact: Lake Hudson Recreation Area was the country’s first designated Dark Sky Preserve).

TOOLS OF THE TRADE
While simply gazing at the sky can be a wondrous experience, it helps to have some magnification. Telescopes give you a close-up view of the stars, but before you buy, consider this: “If you're looking to buy a telescope, plan on spending close to $1,000. Most telescopes that people purchase for a couple hundred dollars are very cheaply made and do not have a steady mount,” said Dobek.

Even a decent pair of binoculars greatly enhances the proceedings. Dobek said to think “aperture”: the larger, the better. “The objects in the sky are large enough to see, it's just that they are too faint for the eye to see. What binoculars do or a telescope does is increase the amount of light that we can bring into the eye.”

He goes on to say that the pupil opening when dark-adapted is about a quarter-inch, or seven millimeters.  “A good pair of binoculars begins with an aperture of about 50 millimeters, which brings in about 50 times as much light as the unaided eye, so the object would appear 50 times as bright.” Telescopes work the same, he said, but warned that those cheap ones typically end up in the back of the closet collecting dust. 

Another technological innovation is the profusion of star-viewing applications. The numerous astronomy-themed apps range from planetarium simulators to lists of object coordinates. Moler recommends Stellarium, a free app that shows exactly what you see when you look up at the stars.

As to Comet NEOWISE, a NASA space telescope known as NEOWISE first spotted the icy rock, officially called C/2020 F3, on March 27. It is the brightest comet since Comet Hale-Bopp visited in 1997. While visible with the naked eye, using binoculars will reveal much more detail. To find it, look to the northwest just below the Big Dipper. And be warned: If you miss it this time around, you’re pretty much out of luck. It is now heading back into space and won’t be visible again for some 6,800 years.

*Photo above captured by Sarah Goodwin, SG Captures

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