How to see the Milky Way - nearly free and clear - in Georgia 

  • Mary Caldwell
  • For the AJC
5:41 p.m Tuesday, July 11, 2017 Atlanta Parks and Trails

With so much anticipation surrounding the upcoming solar eclipse, it's easy to forget that the Georgia sky has awesome celestial sights throughout the year.  

The Milky Way, for example, stretches across the horizon in a huge glowing arc, but many people have never seen it.

If you'd like to get a good view of our home galaxy, you'll need to venture out of the metro Atlanta area to avoid light pollution.

Even one streetlight can ruin your Milky Way-spotting, Mark Lancaster, astronomer at Fernbank Science Center, said in an e-mail.

Here's what you need to know if you want to see the Milky Way in Georgia:

Charles Seabrook
Nature’s sounds of summer abound along the shores of the 275-acre Lake Rutledge in Hard Labor Creek State Park in Morgan County, about a 45-minute drive east of Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED BY CHARLES SEABROOK

Lancaster recommends Hard Labor Creek State Park, which is located about 50 miles east of downtown Atlanta.

Georgia State University owns an observatory at the park to facilitate viewing, and it hosts open houses once a month from March through October. Night sky observations start a half-hour after sunset and last for two hours.

Located in northwest Georgia on Lake AllatoonaRed Top Mountain State Park is also a good place to see the Milky Way, Lancaster said. The park hosts public sky viewing nights and provides a telescope and gazing binoculars to use.

If you'd like to try to spot the Milky Way and other celestial bodies and events, meet at the visitors' center by 8:45 p.m. and then carpool to the gazing location.

Contributed by Rena Johnson Photography/For the AJC
See more stars over Georgia's Stephen C. Foster Park, designated in December as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Stephen C. Foster State Park has been designated as a Gold-tier International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. It's the first place in Georgia to receive this accreditation, which it earned not only through its naturally dark location in the Okefenokee Swamp, but also by removing street lights, directing lighting to shine downward and installing motion-activated lights.

The park hosts astronomy programs throughout the year, using 8-inch and 10-inch SkyQuest Dobsonian telescopes.

The best time of year to find the Milky Way is generally from June into August, Lancaster said.

The darker, the better, Lancaster said.

"The night sky anywhere near Atlanta has far too much light pollution and obscures the Milky Way from view. You need to be away from the city, away from city lights and the more remote you are, the better. Fifty to 60 miles outside the city should do it, as long as no other large light sources are present nearby," he added.

"Weather conditions are critical ... any cloud cover, even very high, thin cirrus clouds, can obstruct the Milky Way's view," Lancaster said.

It's not just the city lights you need to avoid – you'll also need to pick a moonless night. Even a crescent or quarter moon can drown out the Milky Way's light, he pointed out.

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