How Can I Observe the Milky Way?

There have been times when I've looked up into the night sky, trying to see "the Milky Way", however, I've never been able to see it. Can you recommend the best way to observe the Milky Way? - Question posed by Robin.

The Milky Way is the name we give the galaxy that we live in. From our vantage point, about half way out from the centre of the galaxy, the vast majority of the bright points that we can see on a clear night are stars that belong to the same galaxy as us- in effect, if you look at any of the stars, you're looking at the Milky Way!

But I don't think that's what Robin means. When observing the night sky, what astronomers mean by the 'Milky Way' is a thick, highly populated band of stars that stretches across the sky. This is what the bulk of our galaxy looks like edge-on. Here's what you need in order to see it:

By Cygnus_constellation_map.png: Torsten Bronger derivative work:
Kxx (Cygnus_constellation_map.png) via Wikimedia Commons
  1. First and foremost, you need darkness. You won't be able to see it no matter what the conditions if you're in a city or large town. Your best bet is to either get your local towns and villages to turn off all of their street lights, or take a trek out into the countryside, the more remote the better. Light pollution from nearby towns and cities will reduce the likelihood of picking out the Milky Way.
  2. Once you've picked a spot, you need a clear night, free of clouds, mist, dust and pollution. One of those really cold nights would probably be best, as there won't be any clouds and the sky will shine with more stars than you ever dreamed existed.
  3. Now you need to know where to look. Take a look at the image above. This is a star map of the constellation Cygnus (the Swan). The asterism shown in green is what you're looking for, though it may be easier to concentrate on the part of it headed by Deneb and including the stars marked with γ, ε, δ, η and β (known as the Northern Cross). Learn to recognise this shape in the sky (you can see it even when viewing's not great, and it's fairly high in the sky), and it'll give you a surefire way to find the Milky Way, because...
  4. ... Cygnus the Swan flies along the Milky Way. If conditions are good enough, you'll see the Milky Way stretching out across the sky in the direction that the Northern Cross appears to point.
By Till Credner via Wikimedia Commons
If you can find the constellation Sagittarius (as in the photo to the left- it'll be along the line of the Milky Way) you'll be looking towards the centre of our galaxy, where there is believed to be a supermassive black hole...


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