Observing the stars and other celestial objects on a clear moonless night is the ideal.
Unfortunately, not all nights are like that, which can be disappointing for a stargazing enthusiast. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
Here’s how you can stargaze when it’s cloudy
Stargazing is possible when it’s cloudy but it requires a different approach. Firstly, evaluate how thick the clouds really are, since stargazing can still be worthwhile under thin or broken cloud patterns. In fact, thin and high clouds can even create striking sights, especially for lunar observation. When the cloud deck is too thick, consider preparing for the next clear night by studying star charts, researching celestial phenomena, or even observing another aspect of the natural world. Finally, consider upgrading your equipment (like binoculars and telescopes) to improve viewing on cloudy nights.
Ready on for ideas to enjoy a fascinating and satisfying evening despite uncooperative weather.
How cloudy is too cloudy to stargaze?
Amateur and professionals alike want clear, dark skies for nighttime stargazing. These types of nights are often to be had after a day or two after the passage of a cold front when high pressure takes hold. On these still starry nights temperatures, humidity and winds are low.
Alas, not every night is perfectly clear and still. Even if you are away from city light, clouds can interfere with your celestial observations. Cloudy nights typically wreck the stargazer’s evening activities.
But not all cloud cover can ruin your stargazing plans. That’s because there are different types of clouds and they can form at different heights above the ground. Thick stratus, cumulus, or nimbus clouds generally preclude a good star-viewing outing. They are generally just too thick to let any starlight through.
Thin high clouds such as cirrus clouds are a different story, especially if they form a “broken cloud cover”. Some partly cloudy nights offer the opportunity to predict, from your study of star charts, where to look for certain stars or constellations. It can be a great feeling when they appear in a cloudless window just where you were expecting them to be.
Can you observe the moon on a cloudy night?
The moon is Earth’s closest neighbor in space, It can also be the brightest object in the night sky. Because of its brightness, it is observable when cloud cover is thin or partial. Indeed, sometimes under certain conditions, light cloudiness can produce some special lunar effects. Thin cloud cover, when the particles in the cloud are all about the same size, can produce a corona effect. If the thin clouds contain ice crystals, a halo around the moon can form and be observed. Of course, some people love to see the full or nearly full moon on nights when clouds are breaking after a storm.
Poems have been written about the moon on cloudy nights. A particularly famous one begins:
“The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas”.Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman
If clouds are too thick to observe the moon, look at some of the fabulous photos of both the light side and the dark side of the moon. Become familiar with the different mare and highland areas. Then, when you can see the moon, determine if you can identify any of these features with or without the aid of binoculars or a telescope.
Fun astronomy activities when it’s too cloudy for stargazing
Fortunately, there are a number of activities that you can do when it’s too cloudy for a look at celestial objects. Here are our favorite ideas.
Preparing for future stargazing nights
Let’s face it, some nights are simply useless for stargazing. However, you can plan out your next good night’s activities.
Reviewing star charts can be quite useful. A neat project is to start a journal about some of the celestial objects you’d like to see. Organize this on the next cloudy night and you’ll be prepared for the next available night of deep dark skies.
Here are some questions to ponder:
- Are there any constellations low on the horizon that you’d like to see on the next clear night?
- Are you familiar with the lesser-known constellations such as Leo Minor, Canis Minor, or Lepus?
- Would it pay to wake up in the early morning hours to get a glimpse of a star you’d like to see?
- In addition to stars, what else is visible in the heavens?
- What wandering planets are visible?
- Are you familiar with binary stars and how many have you seen?
- Are there any meteor showers expected soon?
Keeping an eye on the weather
Sometimes it is cloudy just before dark and you may think of canceling your evening stargazing activity.
Don’t throw your plans aside right away.
As it gets dark and temperatures drop, cloudiness can change. Convective activity in the atmosphere dies down. The clouds of late afternoon often dissipate when it gets dark. You may actually get a green light to go out and look up to the night sky anyway.
You are already a knowledgeable observer of celestial objects. Become a savvy weather observer as well! Indeed, several days before your planned stargazing session, develop your own personal weather forecast for the upcoming stargazing event.
Determining just how thick the cloud cover is
Some celestial objects can be observed if the cloud cover is thin enough.
We’ve already reviewed lunar observations on cloudy nights.
But even bright planets and high magnitude stars can be seen through thin banks, especially those composed of high cirrus, cirrostratus, or cirrocumulus clouds. It may be worth a look.
Indeed, some amateur astronomers enjoy capturing exceptional photographs of the moon and other heavenly bodies against a partly cloudy night sky.
Moreover, there is a certain type of cloud called a noctilucent cloud (NLC), which is visible only at night under certain conditions. Have you seen them?
Going online and learn more about astronomy
Don’t waste the cloudy night. Reading, watching videos, or consuming other online learning on how the cosmos works can prepare you well for your next real observational night.
There is so much to learn about outer space! For example:
- How many of the stars that you are likely to see actually double stars?
- Should there be any nebula within detection by your naked eye or with a pair of binoculars?
- What about reviewing some of the inspiring images from the Hubble telescope?
Delve into the creation of the universe, with questions like:
- Does the Big Bang make sense?
- Is there more to the cosmos beyond the visible limits of the universe?
Finally, learning more about stargazing equipment can also make future evenings all the more interesting, whether they’re clear our cloudy. To start with:
- Is there a good deal on a better pair of binoculars for stargazing?
- Would a telescope (or a better telescope) be worth adding to your night-viewing arsenal?
For many folks, astronomy is a part of their love for all the natural sciences. Nighttime can be a perfect time to check out many aspects of nature, even in your own backyard.
If it is a cloudy summer night, you can still look for fireflies flashing then going dark or see if any night crawlers are stretched out on your lawn.
Observing what is attracted to an outdoor light near your window or front porch can be quite revealing. Looking under the eaves of your home with a flashlight can sometimes reveal some interesting insect or small mammal activity.
If it is a still cloudy night, go outside and listen. Are there any night sounds to identify, such as crickets or katydids?
How stargazers can still enjoy cloudy nights
Without a doubt, the best opportunities for stargazing are on clear and still nights.
Successful astronomical observation is still possible on certain types of cloudy nights, especially when the cloud cover is high and thin, or intermittent.
Other activities are useful to take up when it is too cloudy to see the stars, planets, or moon. These include the study of star charts and astronomy apps for future night outings, research into astronomical phenomena, evaluation of new equipment, and observation into other nocturnal, natural activity unaffected by cloud cover.