Monday, May 3, 2021

Star-gazing in Massachusetts: Now and Then

In the last year, more and more Massachusetts citizens have headed outside to remain active while working remotely and social distancing. While our commonwealth offers a ton of outdoor activities to fill your days, there is also one to fill your nights: star-gazing. 

Humans have looked up to the stars for as long as we have populated the Earth, noticing patterns and weaving stories, as well witnessing meteor showers or eclipses and contemplating their meaning. In what is now the United States, there is some evidence to suggest that Northeastern Native American tribes such as the Iroquois and the Algonquin not only paid deep attention to astronomical happenings, and may have been the first to witness a cluster of stars known as the Pleiades. After English settlers colonized the area and founded Harvard College in 1636, the college’s printing press began printing almanacs with astronomical information in 1639. These almanacs included information on the phases of the moon, tide tables, and even projections on the best time to plant crops based on astronomy. The Enlightenment in Europe popularized the pursuit of scientific exploration around this period, and colonial Americans, especially New Englanders, enjoyed star-gazing as a popular pastime with the help of these astronomical almanacs.

Illustration from The Mariner's New Calendar (1763).

Today, we wish we still had astronomical almanacs to find out when, where, and how to witness astronomical events. Some of you may even have witnessed the Super Pink Moon the evening of April 26th last week, and wondered, “What else is happening in the sky that I don’t know about?” Others may have missed this phenomenon and hoped that it might happen again soon – and don’t worry, it will! 

There are several resources you can use to track astronomical events so you don’t miss another meteor shower, supermoon, or eclipse. Websites like keep a running tab on what is happening with their “Tonight” page, which shows you what is going on in the night sky right now and what you might be able to witness in your region. You can also find yearly guides like this one from or this one from Sky at Night Magazine, which provides the 2021 dates of upcoming events so you can mark your calendars.

Photograph of Mars taken on September 28th, 1909, by E.E. Barnard,
at the Yerkes Observatory, through a 40 inch telescope.
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.

But how helpful is knowing when these events are happening if you can’t see them? Light and air pollution can dim our ability to see the night sky clearly depending on where we live. Make sure to consult light pollution maps or lists of the best places to stargaze (like the ones below) to make sure that you are well-positioned to see the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies.

Abbot Academy Astronomy Club circa 1963. Courtesy of
Phillips Academy Andover Archives and Special Collections

Lastly, if you just can’t get enough of the night sky, consider joining a local astronomy club! There are local amateur clubs across the commonwealth that host meetings, viewing nights, star parties, and  stargazing programs. Check for local club information from Boston to the Cape, out to Springfield and even further to Adams, Massachusetts!

Further Reading:

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff