Urban and Suburban Stargazing

I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, less than five miles from downtown Boston. Greater Boston, a metropolis of three to eight million people, stretches around me to a distance of anywhere from 20 to 70 miles, depending exactly what you include.

In 1997 I bought a small telescope and set out to explore the night sky, something that’s particularly challenging in an urban environment. With trees and buildings all around and streetlights overhead, the sidewalk outside my apartment building is suitable only for viewing the Moon and planets — and less than ideal for those. So most of my observing is done from other locations, ranging from my local city park to various sites in the inner suburbs, my astronomy club’s observing field in the outer suburbs, my country home 25 miles from Albany, New York, and some nearly pristine sites in Northern New England and elsewhere.

When I started to communicate with other stargazers on the internet, I realized that many novice stargazers, familiar only with the conditions in their backyards, greatly underestimate the effects of light pollution. From 2000 to 2002 I set out to explore this subject systematically by attempting to observe all 109 Messier objects (star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies cataloged by the 18th-century astronomer Charles Messier) through three different instruments and locations in the city and suburbs. These results are summarized in my Urban and Suburban Messier Guide, which many aspiring stargazers have found useful. My discussion of Challenges and Techniques for Urban and Suburban Observing is also very popular.

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