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Which moon phase best for stargazing?

Image credit: NASA

Tonight for May 31, 2016

We got this question:

Which phase of the moon would be best for stargazing, and why?

And the answer is … it depends on what you want to do. Some people enjoy watching the moon itself, as it waxes and wanes in our sky. Some enjoy the fact that the moon appears near bright stars and planets at certain times of the month. For instance, you can use the waning crescent moon tomorrow morning (June 1, 2016) to help guide you to the planet Uranus and the planet Mercury, as displayed on the sky chart below. However, you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to see Uranus from anywhere worldwide, and the Southern Hemisphere is now enjoying a fine morning apparition of Mercury (whereas the Northern Hemisphere is not).

The slender waning crescent moon and Mercury, from the perspective of middle latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere enjoys a much better view of Mercury in the morning sky because Mercury rises before morning dawn in that part of the world.

The slender waning crescent moon and Mercury, from the perspective of middle latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere enjoys a much better view of Mercury in the morning sky because Mercury rises before morning dawn in that part of the world.

The moon is now a waning crescent moon. Waning means the illuminated part is diminishing, whereas crescent means the moon is less than half-illuminated. The moon climbs over the eastern horizon in the wee hours before sunrise right now, meaning that most of the night is moon-free. New Moon will occur on June 5.

Moon-free nights enable astronomers to look at deep-sky objects, such as galaxies, star clusters and nebulae, so they like it when the moon is at or near new phase. It’s best to look at these faint fuzzies in a night sky with little or no light. The next new moon happens on June 16.

Four keys to understanding moon phases

People using telescopes try to avoid the moon, because its glare interferes with the telescopic views of deep-sky objects. Especially around full moon, the moon casts a lot of light, washing out many nighttime treasures. At new moon, the moon is up during the day, not the nighttime. Around then, you won’t see the moon at all – unless you’re on just the right spot on Earth to watch a solar eclipse. But the last solar eclipse happened with the March 9 new moon, and the next solar eclipse won’t take place until September 1.

Moon phases: 1) new moon 2) waxing crescent 3) first quarter 4) waxing gibbous 5) full moon 6) waning gibbous 7) last quarter 8) waning crescent. For more, read Understanding moon phases

Moon phases: 1) new moon 2) waxing crescent 3) first quarter 4) waxing gibbous 5) full moon 6) waning gibbous 7) last quarter 8) waning crescent. For more, read Four keys to understanding moon phases

Bottom line: The best phase of the moon for stargazing depends on what you want to do. Some enjoy watching the moon itself. On the other hand, people using telescopes avoid the moon because its glare interferes with deep-sky objects.

A planisphere is virtually indispensable for beginning stargazers. Order your EarthSky planisphere today.

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