Out-of-this-world tips for stargazing in Chicago and beyond

When my husband and I are camping or, in my case, glamping in Central Wisconsin, one of our favorite pastimes is taking in the night sky. We want to share our love of astronomy with our little guy, so I checked in with Shane Larson, an astronomer at Adler Planetarium, to find out how families can savor the night sky. Larson, who also works for NASA, clearly knows his space stuff. He offered a spectrum of out-of-this-world tips for stargazing—in the city and beyond!  

Don’t let your city address stop you from family stargazing

He suggests starting your family’s celestial adventures right in your own backyard or at a local park. 

“If you live in the greater Chicago area and don’t want to drive out into the surrounding countryside, you can easily see the brighter constellations, the moon and the brightest planets,” Larson says. 

You can take your urban moon-gazing to the next level with a simple piece of advice: “If you happen to have a pair of binoculars under the seat of your car, grab them and take a look at the moon—you’ll be able to see craters.” 

Learn more about the galaxy

Gazing up at the night sky with kiddos is wonderful, but actually being able to give them information on what they are seeing is even better. Fortunately, when it comes to stargazing know-how, there is, of course, an app for that. 

Larson recommends the SkySafari app: “It has a cool features where it uses your phone’s orientation sensors, so if you hold it up to the sky, it shows you what is behind the phone—great for identifying stars by name, constellations and planets.”

To get in the know about astronomy, Larson recommends two monthly magazines. Sky & Telescope and Astronomy both provide space news, stories about astronomy and space exploration, plus sky charts. 

Go beyond the city limits

“Living in an urban area like Chicagoland, we are all familiar with the fact that the city is brightly lit up at night, which often discourages people from seeing and experiencing the sky,” Larson says.

A Light Pollution Map is a handy tool for planning stargazing trips outside of the city. Larson uses the map that can be found at darksite finder.com/map. 

“If you are looking at such a map, you usually have to get out into a region that is at least yellow on the map to see the Milky Way; green and blue regions will make the Milky Way stupendously bright,” Larson says. 

If you’re fortunate enough to travel to see the night sky, Larson suggests Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, and Governor Dodge State Park and Wildcat Mountain State Park in Wisconsin.

If you are up for a full day to drive, the International Dark-Sky Association has certified a “Dark Sky Park” in Headlands Beach State Park in Michigan. Hearing “Are we there yet?” 47 times will become worth it once you savor the wonder of the night sky far from the hustle and bustle of the city.

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