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EXPLORING BIG NIGHT SKY COUNTRY Main Photo

EXPLORING BIG NIGHT SKY COUNTRY


Montana's vast rural spaces make it one of the best places in the country to view the night sky
Posted: April 07, 2024 by Erin Duval

Across the vast expanse of Montana, the horizon stretches endlessly, rightfully earning our state the moniker “Big Sky Country.” That phrase rings even more true after the sun sets, unveiling a celestial tapestry waiting to be explored. Huge swaths of Montana are separated from artificial light, making the state an unparalleled destination for astrotourism and inviting visitors and residents to gaze upon the stars and unlock the mysteries of the universe. Let’s take a quick tour through ways to experience Montana’s heavenly wonders.

 

To start out, there’s no secret about this year’s biggest celestial event — April 8th will feature a total solar eclipse passing across much of North America! While the path of totality crosses through parts of 14 states, Montana is far outside the ideal viewing experience; however, even a partial solar eclipse is an otherworldly experience! Residents around Billings will see the moon obscure roughly 45% of the sun just before 1 p.m., while those living on the western side of the state will see about a third of the sun in shadow. Be sure to be safe and wear eclipse glasses if you look upwards!

 

Later this month, the nighttime skies above Montana will be adorned with the beauty of the Lyrid meteor shower. Named after the constellation Lyra, this annual meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through the debris left behind by the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher in late April, with the shower peaking on the 23rd. With clear skies and minimal light pollution, astronomy lovers can witness the dazzling display of shooting stars, with up to 20 meteors an hour!

 

 

Photo by Hunter D'Antuono

 

The full moon is always a spectacular sight, and this month, our satellite will show off fully on April 23. This spring moon is known as the “Pink Moon” for its association with wild ground phlox, one of the earliest flowers to bloom each spring.

 

It's often hard to differentiate stars from planets, but in April, seeing Jupiter is a special treat. The planet appears as one of the brightest points in the sky, rising in the western sky just after sunset. With a good pair of binoculars, you might even be able to make out a few of the gas giant’s many moons! To make sure you don’t miss the time they’ll be visible from your location, use an astronomical app like Sky Tonight.  

 

Where to view?

Montana’s rural character means that much of the state is far from artificial light. A short drive from any town or city can plunge you into near-complete darkness. However, a few spots do stand out above the rest.

 

 

Photo by Hunter D'Antuono

 

The pristine wilderness of Glacier National Park is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes and abundant wildlife, but above the majestic peaks and sweeping valleys lies another marvel: an International Dark Sky Park.

Designated as such by the International Dark Sky Association in 2021, Waterton-Glacier National Park boasts some of the least-polluted skies in the United States, making it an ideal destination for stargazing enthusiasts. Away from the glow of city lights, visitors can witness the celestial panorama in all its splendor, from the shimmering Milky Way to the dance of the Northern Lights.

 

Also in the Northwest, the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge earned an International Dark Sky Sanctuary designation in 2022. Located in Pleasant Valley, nestled in the Salish Mountains west of the Flathead Valley, the 9,225-acre Refuge provides habitat for a diverse group of flora and fauna, and the lack of development makes it a great place for stargazing.

 


Credit: Falchi et al., Sci. Adv., Jakob Grothe/NPS contractor, Matthew Price/CIRES.

 

Eastern Montana is among the most remote and light-bereft areas of the country, making it a superb destination for astronomy buffs. Visit the American Prairie Reserve for a world-class night sky viewing area. The map above shows the large swaths of area with little to no light pollution east of the Continental Divide in Montana.

 

Even if there isn’t a special celestial phenomenon to watch for, astronomers report that 80% of Americans are unable to see the Milky Way with their naked eye — if you’re looking up on a clear Montana night, you’re all but assured to be in that select 20%. Whether you're a seasoned stargazer or a novice astronomer, Big Sky Country beckons you to embrace the night and explore the wonders of the cosmos. The universe awaits!

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