A Night Sky Road Map


Last updated 8/21/2020 at 11:27am

Ernie Cowan

A passing comet hanging in our night sky has been the buzz the past few weeks. Soon there will be talk of the Perseid Meteor Shower in August, or maybe a hopeless romantic is wondering when to plan that moonlight picnic with his sweetheart.

When is the best time to photograph some of Borrego's metal sculptures with a brilliant Milky Way shining overhead? Or when will soft moonlight sweep across the wrinkled landscape of the Borrego Badlands for that perfect nightscape image?

It's no secret that the night skies of Anza-Borrego are spectacular. Clear air, the lack of big-city light pollution and the quiet of nature make this a premier location for stargazing.

To make it even better, both Borrego Springs and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park have been designated as Dark Sky sites by the International Dark Sky Association.

Unless you are lucky enough to have astronomer Dennis Mammana in your back pocket, knowing when and where to see the mysterious and beautiful objects of the universe can be challenging.

Fortunately, there's an app for that.

Several applications are available for both android and iOS devices that will offer help with all of those questions mentioned above. Let's take a look at each.

There are several apps offering a map of the night sky and how stars, planets and passing celestial objects move and where they will be located. Some are free while others are available for a small price.

I've tried most of them but have found Sky Guide to be my favorite. The program uses the built-in compass on your iPad or phone so as you lift your device skyward is shows a real-time look what you are seeing.

This allows you to know that the bright "star" above Font's Point tonight is actually Jupiter, and that slightly dimmer object below and to the left is Saturn.

If you are wondering what the same view would look like in December, you simply select that date and time and your device will show you. You also have the ability to turn on constellation lines and the app will play soothing music while you are viewing if you wish.

This app is very helpful whether you are planning a future trip or will simply be going out tonight and want to know what the heavens will look like. During the visit of Comet Neowise, its path was visible on the app, making it much easier to locate.

LightTrac (http://www.lighttracapp.com/) is another app I would not be without for night sky, sunrise or sunset photography. The program is designed to help photographers plan their outdoor photo shoots ahead of time by helping them find the perfect light conditions, time and location to photograph their subjects anywhere in the world. At a selected date and location, you can see when the sun and moon will rise and set and at what compass bearing. This is very valuable if you are planning sunrise or sunset shoots.

Moon Calendar is probably one of the apps I use most for night shoots. At a glance, the program shows the phases of the moon for each day of the month but click on a particular day and you get moonrise and set times, sunrise and set times and the angles for each event. Often you want a soft light illuminating the terrain if you are planning to shoot the Milky Way, or a comet, even a meteor shower. Knowing there will be a quarter moon at a low angle on a particular night can really add that extra dimension to your night sky landscapes.

So, you've made all your plans for night sky watching, but you've heard it might be cloudy or hazy. There's also an app for that.

Cleardarksky.com offers a sky chart for your location showing predicted cloud cover, sky transparency and "seeing" conditions at any time on a particular night. The program even offers localized locations, including Borrego Springs.

And don't forget Google Earth. This is extremely valuable for a bird's eye view of the terrain and for locating roads, trails and ground features you may want to find. It can also be very helpful to see terrain features in relationship to a low angle moon.

The night skies of Anza-Borrego are spectacular and a little planning along with the help of modern online tools, you can enjoy it like never before.

Just don't forget to turn off all those devices once you get to your destination, sit back, relax and simply enjoy the beauty.

I almost forgot another adult essential. A good bottle of wine.