How To Know Where & When The Milky Way Will Appear

I get asked fairly often how I'm able to anticipate or predict when the Milky Way and other celestial objects will be in position in the skies above for my photography.  In that direction, I wanted to share that I use a combination of knowledge and software tools to help boost that knowledge and understanding.

In looking back in history, it wasn't that long ago that I asked myself the same questions.  I was following some other excellent night photographers where it suddenly hit me that these guys were definitely not guessing - they knew what to expect before heading out in the darkness.  So I started doing some research to see what pc-based tools I could find - mostly from the astronomy side of photography.

Option #1 - Stellarium
Shortly after starting the hunt, I found a free software application called Stellarium (from http://www.stellarium.org/) which helped to wet my appetite.  Considering the price (did I say it was free?), it's hard not to recommend that people at least take a look at this option.

 

Option #2 - SkyGazer
In search of more, I ended up purchasing another program called SkyGazer 4.5 (from http://www.carinasoft.com/skygazer.html) and used it for several years with good success.  At just $29 for an online download, I have to recommend this option as having very good overall value.

 

Option #3 - Starry Night
More recently, I took a look at another software application and was impressed with its combination of functionality and realism - called Starry Night.  I decided to buy the more advanced pro edition from http://astronomy.starrynight.com/ as it includes data for comets - something I felt was worth the extra expense.  My testing shows it as the clear winner - with improved realism and features.  In-fact, I've been so impressed with Starry Night, that I've dedicated myself to learning how to make the most of it.  And while the Pro Edition cost $149, an online download of the regular edition is available for just $49.95.  I found this to have the best overall value and is therefore my best recommendation from the bunch.

Understanding Milky Way Patterns
Along the way, I learned that the Milky Way follows some patterns that are very helpful to understand.  In general, it appears at certain times of the night as a faint, wide, cloudy line of stars that runs from North to South.  And while it is visible at any time of the year, those in North America will get their best view of the Milky Way in the summer months from May through September.  This is when the brightest, most visible portion of the Milky Way near the center of the galaxy is high enough in the sky to be seen when looking toward the south.  In spring, the Milky Way appears for a few morning hours before twilight, in the summer for much of the night, and in the fall for a few evening hours after twilight.

Summary - Favorite Astronomy Software Applications
At their minimum, all three of these software applications do a good job of helping to become more aware of the timing of celestial objects in the skies overhead.  And while I may have my favorites, they all do a good job of helping you to predict and anticipate where the Milky Way and other objects will appear. 

I hope these tools help in your knowledge and understanding of what goes on in the skies above.  Let me know if you run into any questions.