John Pazmino
 NYSkies Astronomy Inc
 2002 September 2 initial
 2003 May 25 current
    It is still deemed impossible by some darksky leaders that to see 
the Milky Way from within the city limits of New York is a hopeless 
dream for some far off century. This is specially so as, with the 
reckless expansion of luminous graffiti in many other parts of the 
United States, the Milky Way is vanished from local skies. 
    But the brutal fact is that the City of New York is scoring 
occasional and repeated sightings of the Milky Way within its 
praecincts, and has been doing so for at least a full decade. To be 
honest, only the very brightest sectors of the Milky Way, those in the 
summer reach, are so far reported. There is no thought of soon seeing 
the entire band arching across the sky. 
    Furthermore, despite the slow steady improvement of the sky over 
New York, as yet the Milky Way is seen only from the outer boros, but 
not from Manhattan itself. In 2001 the first sighting was reported 
from the Bronx, the boro adjacent to Manhattan's northern frontier. 
    The ability to see, even if only in the brightest sections, any 
Milky Way from the 'poster town' of deep-seated light pollution is one 
of the crowning achievements of the planet's darksky movement. 
Milky Way seasons
    The main season for seeing the Milky Way from New York opens on 
September 1st and runs thru December 31st of each year. The start in 
date catches the clearest nights of the year, by climatic records, in 
the City during September and October. At the same time, the summer 
Milky Way, with its brightest segments, is still in the evening sky. 
By mid and late December, the summer Milky Way is in the west, sliding 
steadily into evening twilight, and the usual cloudy winter weather 
sets in. 
    Milky Way sightings in this fall season were first logged 
in the late 1980s. Most years produced at least one sighting. Years 
ranged in score from zero, due to adverse weather, to four. 
    A second season opened in the early 1990s but is not well 
established. This runs in May and June, which can bring some extremely 
dark nights. The Milky Way seen then is also the summer reach, in the 
midnight to predawn hours. Sightings in this season are far fewer, 
likely due to the inconvenient hours of visibility. Most years failed 
to score a sighting and the record is still too scanty to set firm 
limits for this new spring season. 
What is visible
    A common misinterpretation of the City's Milky Way reports is that 
in some fanciful manner the full allsky band shines out, like in a 
country sky. This is pure silliness [so far in this century]. What is 
reported is a patch here and there along the Milky Way zone, 
disjointed from constellation to constellation, like slightly brighter 
islands of sky. On a particular night of reports, the precise 
descriptions can vary widely due to local circumstances. Collectively, 
they confirm that in fact the sky was clear and dark enough to let the 
Milky Way come thru. 
    The general appearance is a swelling of brightness on the sky, 
fixed against the stars, and easily mistaken for a faint streak of 
cloud. On singular occasions some texture, like the edges of a cloud, 
are reported. 
    Sections noted over the years are in Cygnus, Scutum, M24, M8. The 
extreme north and south limits of all sightings are Cepheus-Cygnus 
to Scorpius-Sagittarius. Sometimes the Milky Way is discernible to a 
particular observer for only part of the night, then it recedes into 
the grayed skies to total invisibility. 
    The galactic center is not seen because of its low culmination 
altitude along the southern horizon. 
    Definitely such sightings would a laughable brag for a darksky 
location. By the same token [EEeek!] they represent a true miracle 
from New York, giving hope and inspiration to darksky advocates. 
    Because of all the extraneous illuminations in the sky over New 
York, it is very easy to mistake a 'normal' glow as a piece of Milky 
Way. Here are several factors to keep in mind about the Milky Way. It 
stretches along a fixed circle in the stars. The summer reach, the 
only one so far seen from New York, runs from the southern horizon in 
Scorpius, then northward into Sagittarius, Scutum, Aquila, Cygnus, and 
Cepheus. I miss out lateral extensions into other constellations. 
    You can check this on a staratlas which plots the galactic equator 
or centerline of the Milky Way. Define a belt, say, 10 degrees wide 
straddling this equator and that's the region of sky you have to look 
at. It can be marked out on a planisphere, so you can know where over 
your horizon it is sitting at the moment of observation. A bit of 
pencilled shading is all that's needed on the starplate. 
    As an example, you will not see the summer Milky Way in the 
predawn hours in the fall season; it is too low in the northwest. To 
see it in the new spring season, you have to be under the stars in 
those hours. It then runs high in the east to overhead. 
    The Milky Way is also of a fixed brilliance, so you can gage by 
the surrounding sky what chance you have for seeing it. This feature 
makes the Milky Way a more certain target than an aurora, which may be 
of any brilliance. 
    To see the Milky Way you need absolutely no worse than a cold 4.5 
magnitude transparency in the Milky Way itself. Not for the overhead 
or darkest part of the sky, but where the Milky Way sits. Not rounded 
down to 4.5, but a hard and cold needle-pinning 4.5. This is a minimum 
but insufficient condition before being rewarded with a glimpse of the 
Milky Way. 
    The fainter stars you can see, the better are the chances. Have 
with you a chart of the Milky Way zone with key stars labelled with 
magnitudes. A computer planetarium program can make one up for you. 
Viewing location
    Because you'll be watching with unaided eye for only a couple 
minutes, the selection of viewing site is vastly more ample than for 
regular starviewing. It can be a darkened stoop, alcove, corner, 
terrace, park. Any place you can walk into, be aware of your 
surrounds, and inspect the sky in peace and quiet. You may, for 
instance, find a shaded patch in a park along your walk home from work 
or get permission to use your house's rooftop after arriving home. 
    There need be no conveniences at the site being that you are only 
momentarily stopping there. Lack of benches or warmth (autumn can be 
awfully raw!) is no issue. Pull up your jacket collar and lean against 
a wall.
    They will better align you with the Milky Way, pick out the 
fainter stars, and assess movement of the suspected spot against the 
stars. One clue to a false Milky Way patch is that in binoculars it 
still looks like a cloud and not sprinkled all over with tiny stars. 
However, it is the view of the Milky Way by the eye alone that counts. 
Ground illumination 
    The main criterion is that local lamps be out of your face. At 
street level, even in the nabes of the most star-friendly outdoor 
illuminations, you will be hit by excess light beams. These come from 
residual trashlights on buildings, car headlights, old streetlamps. 
The site must be shaded from this clutter of ground illuminations. 
    Blockage by trees (when still in leaf), walls, fences are the 
easiest to look for at a street location. Elevation above the street 
is best for a terrace or rooftop. It seems that once you're a couple 
floors above the street lighting, the grosser interference from these 
lights is below you. 
    This strategy exploits one of the eerie features of New York. It 
is a 'dark' City in that there is little exterior lighting above the 
first few floors and no extreme lighting of towers. 
    It may be feasible to construct a portable light shield to set up 
at your site. Observers have used folded refrigerator boxes, Chinese 
curtains, blankets draped on railings and fences, jackets with 'snout' 
    One fetching possibility is an el platform, practicly unique to 
New York. These sit six or so meters off of the street, above almost 
all street-level lights, and are themselfs modestly lighted. View form 
the ends, away from the canopy. 
Sky exposure
    Your site must face the part of the sky where the Milky Way runs! 
Be wisely of compass directions at the site, particularly if the 
street grid is skewed against them. Study a street map. Ideally you 
want the entire zone as much as the instant day and hour allow, so you 
can catch any part of the Milky Way. Recall from above that it shines 
out in isolated spots here and there. You could miss one by an ill-
placed obstruction. 
    Such an ideal place may be found in an open part of a park or 
higher rooftop or even a shaded corner on a hill. In praticality, 
you'll use the location of opportunity, which may well occlude major 
parts of the sky. Just try to get a much of the Milky Way path in your 
sky exposure as possible with preference for the high altitudes, where 
the air is clearer and darker. 
Dark adaption 
    It's impossible to get really dark adapted anywhere outdoors in 
New York. You can achieve a good adaption, sufficient for hunting for 
the Milky Way, by closing your eyes for a minute or two while shielded 
from local lights. If feasible, lie in a lawnchair or sit against a 
wall with closed eyes. Do this after checking your vicinity for the 
usual hazards of big city life. A trick that works for some people is 
to stand upright, look down at your feet, close your eyes, and swoosh 
the eyeballs left and right rapidly. 
    When you, with dark adapted eyes, leave your observing spot you 
may for a few seconds be dazzled by the street lights. Be ready.
Darkness and clarity
    For the conurbation that is New York, with 9-1/2 million residents 
and an other 12 or more million in its satellite towns, the City is 
amazingly friendly for stargazing. It rid itself of aerial dirt and 
soot in the 1970s by curbing smokestack and tailpipe emissions. 
Traditional factories transmorphed into offices, which emit 
essentially no obnoxious material into the air. Electrification of 
regional rail and factories also reduced such contaminants in the air. 
    New York is the living atlas of the darksky for examplifying ways 
to conquer the scourge of luminous graffiti. Street after street 
illustrate the strategies and tactics to remove or reduce excess 
skyward emission of light. True, this largely is accomplished by the 
continual renewal of the City, with the replacement structures built 
to the modern mature standards of illumination. 
    The end result is that on Manhattan the normal clearsky 
transparency is fully fourth magnitude, with frequent dips to 4-1/2. 
Sky illuminations 
    You must be intimately familiar with the artificial illuminations 
in your sky to avoid false Milky Way sightings and to cut down on 
wasted trips to your viewing site. Know the patches of sky brightness 
from nearby properties. Bear in mind that these hotspots can be very 
localized and may change location, size, and intensity from block to 
block. It's the situation at your viewing site that's critical. 
    Be wisely for temporary or occasional illuminations, like a 
ballgame, political rally, street fair. 
Overall chances 
    High mist or haze, unnoticed casually, will block the Milky Way on 
an otherwise clear dark night. So will the least excess of grayness, a 
Moon still in sky, lingering twilight. On the whole it is a touch and 
go effort with most shots being duds. Most of your inspections will 
turn up nothing of the Milky Way on the nights when the chances do 
look favorable. 
    When sighted, as gaged by reports collected so far, the Milky Way 
is a threshold feature recognized by its fixed place in the stars. 
Wait a minute for any drift against the stars; you may be seeing a 
thin cloud. High airplane contrails would likely be too narrow and 
they dilate and fade over time. A reflection of the Moon onto a high 
elevation haze layer can fool you. 
    All in all, you can be frustrated and discouraged by not seeing 
the Milky Way despite taking all the precautions noted here. It may be 
that after all your peculiar location is just too hostile for the 
Milky Way, as so far is the case on Manhattan itself. 
    First we consider the outer boros, off of Manhattan. As long as 
you are sky wisely, take the care in looking, and are overall a good 
bloke, your report is valid. It would be well to call an other 
astronomer to check your sighting, but for the outer boros this is not 
a necessity. Usually multiple reports from a given night and boro are 
wholly independent of each other. 
    Manhattan, on account of its grand importance in the darksky 
movement, requires a tighter rule. Yet even here it has to be loose. 
As long as within the same night two persons see the Milky Way from 
Manhattan, the report is 'confirmed'. The two sightings may be from 
different parts of Manhattan and at different hours of the night. Such 
a lax test accommodates the general impracticality of having at your 
side an other astronomer when you check for the Milky Way. 
    A single report from Manhattan is noted as 'unconfirmed'. Not that 
there is real doubt about what you saw, but merely that there was no 
second report for that night. The lack of a confirming report can be 
due to several perfectly respectable reasons. These include 
unfavorable conditions at the other person's site or absence of the 
person from observing. 
    It would be wise to team up now with an other astronomer, like 
those here in NYSkies, on Manhattan as a check on your sighting. This 
person may be anywhere else but reasonably able to recognize the Milky 
Way from a favorable location. 
Where sightings come from 
    In the early years since records were kept regularly in the late 
1980s, sightings came from a zone of New York generally south of the 
glacial moraine. This is the southern boundary of the last Ice Age and 
is manifested by the ridge running roughly southwest to east thru the 
entire City. The ridge extends into New Jersey and onto Long Island. 
Along it are the various nabes with Heights, Hill(s), Slope in their 
    Traditionally, heavy industry with smokestacks congregated north 
of the moraine along the harbor and rivers fronting Manhattan. These 
poured out air pollution which the moraine for the most part held back 
from the southern parts of the City. South of the moraine was mostly 
residences with minor contribution to air pollution. 
    In spite of the steady evolution of society away from heavy air-
polluting industry in the City, this situation still prevails to a 
substantial degree. The real betterment comes from the gradual removal 
of excess trashlighting as factories are rebuilt. Many are now being 
converted to nonindustrial uses with far less trashlighting. 
    Hence, the darker skies of New York are in this southern zone, 
from mid Staten Island, the Narrows, mid Brooklyn, and mid Queens. The 
zone to the north, including Manhattan and the Bronx, have the typical 
mediocre urban skies with no Milky Way. 
    Milky Way sightings elude Manhattan, the Bronx, and large parts of 
the other boros. In 2001 the City scored the first sighting in recent 
memory from the Bronx. This may be a spinoff of the extraordinary 
clear skies following World Trade Center. For many days the entire 
aviation industry was grounded, freeing the air of airplane pollution. 
A subsequent sighting occurred in 2002 August from the Bronx, with a 
more or less normal aviation activity. 
    Manhattan remains the only boro for which there are no Milky Way 
sightings as yet. It is very unlikely that the current season will 
yield a sighting because the quality of air is substantially the same 
as that of last year. Never the less, it pays to keep an eye out for 
the Milky Way, even tho for sure you will turn in only negative 
    In 1999 as part of the approaching millennium astronomers in New 
York set themselfs the goal of seeing the Milky Way from Manhattan by 
the end of the decade. That is, by 2010. With World Trade Center, the 
ensuing disruption of normal city life, and a general slump in the 
national economy the deadline is informally extended to 2012, the year 
New York [hopefully] hosts the Summer Olympics. It is certain that 
only select parts of the Island will be blessed with a sighting, 
someplace like Fort Tryon Park or the new Hudson River Park. And it is 
certain that only one particularly bright segment of the Milky Way 
will be spotted. When that happens, the war against light pollution is 
over. We won.