This post is the first in a new series about things that happen in the sky. This topic relates to parks because city, county, state, and national parks are often the best places to go to observe or photograph stuff in the sky.
For Part One I am providing suggestions for apps and links to websites in a variety of categories. You have to know when and where things are happening in order to go see them and these resources help with that. The tools are particularly useful for photographers.
Upcoming posts will have tips for when you might want to use specific sites and apps, where to go, and details about chasing the aurora borealis.
Many of the links below take you to pages for Seattle. But once at the site you can enter a zipcode (postal code) or name of a town to find the info for your part of the world. Once you’ve done that, I recommend bookmarking the site if the info looks useful to you. I have all the links sorted into my Sky Stuff bookmarks folder in a web browser so they are easy for me to find and use.
All apps listed are free unless otherwise noted.
One of my favorite sites for Seattle is the Space Needle webcam. It gives you a 360 degree view from the top of the Needle that shows what the weather is doing all around the city.
The displayed image is on a delay to give the camera time to make a full revolution, so what you see is 10 to 30 minutes old, depending on how soon you load it after the most recent update.
The site does occasionally malfunction and not load, or doesn’t update as it’s supposed to, but when it’s working it’s a valuable resource. There is a virtual dial at the bottom that allows you to go back to earlier in the day so you can see how the sky has changed.
The Space Needle cam is a great way to see if skies are clearing, if clouds are moving in, what the clouds look like, how autumn color is progressing, and if the mountain is out.
The biggest limitation is the cam is not designed for low light, so you can’t see much of anything until the sun is up. This makes it useless for seeing if you should go out for sunrise, but it’s great for checking on potentially good sunsets.
My favorite all-around weather app is WeatherBug. You can set it for a weather station near you and get current conditions, hourly projections, 10-day forecast, and additionally you get views from weather cams, traffic cams, current radar map, satellite map, and a Spark lightning strike map. You also get sunrise and sunset times.
WeatherBug does also have a website, but I like the app and other weather websites a lot better.
Another general purpose weather app I really like is NOAA Weather. When you open the app you see the 10-day forecast displayed, so it’s a great way to see how weather is trending at a quick glance. If you like to keep track of weather in more than one location this app makes it very easy to set up several cities on the home page so you can quickly switch between them.
My favorite website is Weather Underground. This is a one stop site for just about everything. You get current conditions, 10-day forecast, sunrise/set and twilight times, and moon phase. You can use the calendar to see what the actual weather was on any date in the past, and there’s a weather map with layers so you can choose which info to display.
Webcams are a great way to check on current sky conditions if the Space Needle cam isn’t working or if you live elsewhere. I can’t provide links here because I have over 20 bookmarked and the links aren’t helpful to those in other regions.
Do an internet search that includes the name of your town or area you are traveling to and the words “web cam” or “weather cam.” It often takes some patience, and even some sleuthing by following links on multiple sites, to find what you want. Some cams are weirdly hidden from direct web searches and have to be found in a roundabout manner.
Most local and state departments of transportation have traffic cams. These are my least favorite because they focus on roadways and often what little you can see of the sky is blown out, but sometimes you can find a cam that shows a helpful view of the sky.
The best cams are usually at private homes, businesses, TV stations, and schools.
Satellite maps are good for keeping tabs on weather headed your way and for looking at types of clouds. In Western Washington they’re especially helpful for tracking mid-latitude cyclones and pineapple expresses, the weather events that most impact power outages, wind damage, and flooding around here.
All of the above general weather resources include access to satellite imagery, but sometimes I just want to go directly to the info with no fuss.
The app on my tablet is called NOAA Now. It’s a basic app that only displays satellite info. There are options to select which part of the world and which type of imagery.
The GOES satellites are NOAA’s most modern satellites and they provide high resolution imagery of the western hemisphere. The page that I linked to is just one of many display options.
I recommend going to Home on the menu bar and selecting the appropriate part of the hemisphere for you and then exploring the various display options. Bookmark the pages you find most useful. Closer views of various parts of the US are available, along with views of North America, South America, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
While cloud cover info can be useful for just about anyone who is anywhere, it is especially critical for those of us in Western Washington and Oregon who wish to observe and/or photograph celestial events.
In the US, Seattle ranks #1 and Portland ranks #2 for large cities with the most cloudy days. On average, 226 days per year for Seattle and 222 for Portland.
If there is an upcoming eclipse or meteor shower, knowing if or how much clouds will interfere (again!) is an important part of planning. Unfortunately, forecasting exact cloud cover a few days out, or even just a few hours out, isn’t an exact science.
These cloud cover tools aren’t completely reliable. It can be more or less cloudy in any specific location at any specific time than what was predicted. However, using these tools is still much more informative than relying on generic “partly cloudy” type weather forecasts.
These first two websites have animated maps with layers. Cloud cover is one of the layers. The default map layers show wind patterns and speeds, so these sites are also very useful if you like to photograph stormy waves or for help with deciding what kinds of layers you should wear.
The links are for the Puget Sound region. You can zoom out and move the map to your area and zoom in again, then bookmark it. That way you’ll go directly to your region each time.
MeteoEarth is a mobile app that is similar to the Windy and Ventusky websites. It’s an animated map that displays info layers of your choosing, including cloud cover.
The next two sites show charts, not maps. Once you’ve used them a few times you’ll be comfortable with how the info is displayed and understand it at a quick glance.
This one is a little easier to read and covers most of the planet. It breaks down cloud cover by low, middle, and high altitude clouds, and coverage density. It also shows moon phase and rise and set times.
Clear Sky has more limited locations, about 6k in Canada, the USA, and northern Mexico. The chart indicates hours of darkness which is useful for night activities. This link is for Seattle, but if you click on the link for the number of locations halfway down the page you’ll be taken to a menu to find if there’s a chart for your town or an area you will travel to.
Sunrise and Sunset
The SunsetWx website attempts to predict the chances for a good or poor sunrise or sunset.
The site has limited usefulness and reliability, but it’s better than nothing. It only shows large maps, like the entire US, rather than giving localized data. You can use the site as a factor in deciding if you should head out with your camera, but consider the map as being a guess at best.
MySunset is an app that uses data from the SunsetWx site.
I haven’t used the app myself, I just read about it in a photography blog post. The app is more useful than the website because you can get localized info, but the predictions are still not very accurate.
If the prediction is for a terrible sunrise/sunset it’s almost always correct. But beyond that it’s unreliable because in the end it can be the exact position of individual clouds or sections of cloud cover that make or break the colors for photography.
However, if used within an hour or two of sunrise/sunset time it can be helpful in deciding to go out or not. The reliability plummets the more hours away you are.
This webpage from Cambridge in Colour (a photography education website) provides a nifty little calculator for the basics. It can’t predict if a sunrise will be pretty, but it gives the dawn, sunrise, high sun, sunset, and dusk times for any date you plug in.
Just type your location into the location bar and click “find location”. The data will be displayed for the current date, but you can change it to a future date. It also displays a map showing where the sun rises and sets, which can help with picking out a location to go to for viewing or photography.
Dark Sky Maps
There are some nighttime celestial objects and events that you can observe or photograph from almost anywhere as long as there aren’t trees, buildings, or clouds blocking the way. But some things require somewhat to very dark skies, which means finding locations away from light pollution.
Light pollution maps are a huge help in planning where to go. You may be able to find a metro area park that is slightly darker than surrounding areas, or you can see how far you need to drive to get to a much less light polluted, or completely non-polluted, area.
The Dark Site Finder website gives an excellent overall view of the world when zoomed out. It’s interesting to look at the big picture and see just how light polluted our modern world is. Most of the eastern US, Europe, and eastern Asia is light polluted. There are few to no locations remaining with true dark sky.
The colors indicate the level of light pollution, with dark red being the worst. The further you move into yellows, greens, blues, and grays the less light pollution there is. No color at all indicates true dark sky. Blue and gray areas are very good, but there can still be light pollution on the horizon from distant towns or industrial facilities.
In my experience, just from the places I’m familiar with in the greater Seattle area, this map is pretty accurate. If you don’t want to travel far, look for locations where the colors transition.
It’s worth noting that the map is generated using older data, so conditions in any specific location may have changed. Going further away from transition areas is more of a sure thing.
The Light Pollution website is similar to Dark Site Finder, but with some key differences. With the map’s default setting it is more difficult to find the edges of transition between areas of more and less light pollution because the color shadings aren’t as distinct. However, because the color overlay on the map isn’t as heavy handed, and because the map has much better labeling, using the map as an actual map is much easier.
You can darken the colors using a percentage slider in the menu on the right of the map to make finding transition spots easier, but then the underlying map becomes more difficult to read. Setting the slider to about 70% strikes a good balance to start with. Then you might want to take it back down to around 40% to clearly see to pinpoint an exact location to go to.
When you first load the map there’s a pop-up message and menu boxes on the right. Click the X to close the message. In the menu square select the button for data for the most recent year. Adjust the color overlay slider if you want. Then click the 3-bar menu symbol to close the menu squares to get an unobstructed view of the map.
This isn’t much help in navigating to less light polluted areas, but if you just want to see what the world, your country, or your area looks like at night from space, this is pretty darn cool.
Knowing what the moon is doing is important for all kinds of things. Whether you want moonlight for your activities, or are trying to avoid it, you need to know when it rises, when it’s highest in the sky, when it sets, and what phase it is in.
This is a basic web tool from Cambridge in Colour and is similar to the sunset calculator listed above. Type your location into the location bar, then click on Show Results. You’ll get the info for the current date.
The map should display where the moon rises and sets, which helps with choosing appropriate locations to go to. But it won’t display the info for all dates. Occasionally it gets confused on days when the moon doesn’t rise and set on the same calendar date. Usually choosing a day before or day after brings up that info. (Just make sure you re-select the correct date to get accurate times, etc.)
The other info included is the period of darkest sky, the percent of the moon that is illuminated, rise and set times, and near dates for the major moon phases.
This is a moon phase app that I have on my tablet that used to be called Moon Phase Pro. I was lucky enough to snag it during a free offer a few years ago, the usual price is $3.99.
There are free moon phase apps, but since I haven’t used any of them I don’t have recommendations for which ones are best. I do love Lunescope, so if you plan to use an app much I think it’s worth the four bucks.
The main display is a large depiction of the moon with the current percentage of illumination, along with info on rise and set times, and the nearest dates for new moon and full moon. Dragging your finger on the image changes the date and illumination display.
Other display options on the menu are a map of the moon, the data page, calendar, and upcoming lunar eclipses. The data page provides a ton of details, and also includes an info box for solar (sun) data. The calendar page shows the entire month so you can see the moon phase for each date.
If you touch a date on the calendar it will bring up the info for that date. If you switch to the data view you’ll get the full details for that date.
Stellarium Mobile Sky Map
This is a nifty app you can use to identify stars, planets, satellites, and constellations appearing in the sky at your location. You can also see the position of the Milkyway. The app is only $2.58 in the Amazon appstore, I’m not sure if the price is the same in other stores.
Since the sky changes throughout the night and from season to season this is very handy for letting you know where to look for something specific at the time you are out looking, or to know if what you’re looking for will even be visible.
The app automatically displays the current date and time, but you can manually set a different date and/or time if you need info for planning a future astronomy or photography outing.
You can use GPS to automatically set your location for you if you have location services enabled, or you can manually select a location from menus. The latter also helps when planning for a trip to a different location.
There is a night mode that uses a red display to help preserve your night vision. You can even turn on a mode that will automatically match the screen display to the direction you are facing if your mobile device has the necessary hardware.
Time and Date is a great website for all kinds of things time related. You can get the current official time, time zone conversions, and so on. More relevant here, the site has several pages devoted to the sun, moon, and celestial events such as planetary transits across the sun and solar and lunar eclipses.
The page I linked to gives details for the sun, moon, twilight, and visible planets for the current date in Seattle. There is a search bar below the main graphic you can use to change to your location so you can bookmark it. Along the left side of the page are links to related articles and info on the next upcoming event, such as a lunar eclipse.
This astronomy page at Time and Date provides details about the planets and an interactive map to show you where to look in the sky. (Double tap the map to activate it.)
In the Sky website is primarily designed for amateur astronomers, but is useful to the rest of us as well. On the page in the link you get a nice quick listing of what the moon and planets are doing for the current date. The nice thing about this page is it isn’t cluttered up with fancy graphics and features.
You can change the location by clicking on the little wrench next to where it says Seattle. You can change the date you want the info for by using the drop down boxes.
If you click on the link to the Sky Diagram above the date you’ll go to a page with a diagram showing the position of constellations and objects in the sky so you know where to look at the time of night you will be out. Use the drop down boxes to select date and time. (You can use the sliders instead, but the menus are easier.)
If you’re looking for just plain text and would like info for the entire month you can use this site to generate a calendar for your location (anywhere in the world) that includes just the info you want.
This page gives information on current and upcoming meteor shower activity for the year. The listed info provides start and stop dates, the peak date, how active they are, and the moon phase at peak. The moon can have a large impact on how many meteors are visible.
This webpage lists the peak dates for the showers at the top, then details for each shower as you scroll down the page.
Sky and Telescope
If you’re curious if anything interesting will be going on in the sky during the current week you can load this page on the Sky and Telescope website to see what is listed.
If you’re wanting to do a deeper dive into learning about stuff in the sky, this Sky and Telescope page lists 14 types of celestial objects. Click on the link for what you’re interested in and you’ll be taken to a page with a list of articles and their links.
Watching and photographing thunderstorms is a fun thing to do, especially if you live in an area like Western Washington where we don’t get extreme weather very often. We recently had a mammoth thunderstorm with over 2,000 lightning strikes. It’s the most dazzling thunderstorm I can recall since one we had in the mid-1980s.
If you are going to go out it’s important to know where the active weather is taking place and which direction the storm is moving in. This helps you to choose a location to observe from and also helps with safety.
The Live Wx Radar website is the personal project of a weather geek and collects an assortment of weather maps all on one page.
Storm Prediction Center
The SPC is a National Weather Service product. The main page provides an overview of US weather maps and alerts.
The SPC outlooks page provides current and near future convective and thunderstorm outlook maps.
If you realize you’re a weather geek in the making and want to start doing deeper dives, you can use the SPC forecast tools page for links to all kinds of things.
Sometimes you just want to go directly to a radar map without starting up a general weather app or navigating through a weather website. I like the MyRadar app for that. The animated radar shows where rain is falling, the intensity of the storm, and the direction it’s moving in.
These two websites provide maps of recent and current lightning strikes so you can see where the action is. It’s important to know that the maps only display actual strikes. If there’s a storm happening with lightning that is staying high up in the clouds it won’t show up on the maps. The maps self-update in real time every minute or so.
How many lightning strikes are reported on each map is based on the sensors they access. In my experience from comparing on two different nights when storms moved through, the Spark feature within the WeatherBug app is better than these two websites at reporting lightning strikes. For Washington State anyway. It’s possible that for other areas a different map shows the most info.
Worldwide coverage. Lightning Maps appears to report the fewest lightning strikes, but has the added advantage of also showing an animated sound range for peals of thunder. The thunder option can be turned on by clicking the settings symbol.
Zoom Radar reports lightning in the American continents, and also displays the associated radar info which is helpful. (The radar overlay is slower in loading to the screen.) This map seems to report more strikes than Lightning Maps, but fewer than Spark in WeatherBug. Zoom Radar is also available as an app for Android and IOS. (I haven’t used the app so I don’t know how it compares to the website.)
While tides don’t happen in the sky, if you’re going to be stargazing or photographing a sunset or storm on the beach it’s useful to know what the tide will be doing to avoid disappointment or surprise wet feet.
Tides and Currents is a NOAA webpage that displays all the tide info for the current date. You can use the menus to select a different date if you need that info instead.
Tides is an app that doesn’t have a pretty interface, but it provides all the info you need, including weather, sun, and moon data, in an easy to use format.
Tide Times is another app. It provides info on tides, currents, sun, and moon. It’s okay, and some may prefer it, but it takes an extra click to get to your tide info, is difficult to shift to a date more than a couple days in the future, and it downloads a Google map which seems like a pointless waste of data.
I haven’t personally used any of these, but I didn’t feel this post would be complete without mentioning them. Knowing when and where things happen in the sky is an important part of several types of photography.
The trickier part is how that may affect a composition you want to shoot. When does a full moon rise behind a mountain? When does the sun set between two skyscrapers? What time of day does a bridge catch the best light?
These tools can help with planning a specific shot without having to make scouting trips, which is especially handy for hikes or traveling. They all take some time and practice to learn how to use properly.
TPE started out as a website, then apps were created for Android and IOS devices. The Android app is only $2.99, the IOS app is $9.99. I’m not sure what, if any, the differences are between the two apps. The link takes you to the web-based app. (The web app is easiest to use on a desktop or laptop with a mouse, but can be used on a mobile device touch screen.)
The mobile apps are better than the web version, with more features. So after trying TPE on the web, if you decide you will be making much use of it, it’s worth spending the small amount to buy the app.
Photopills is a similar app, but has more features in the basic package and has add-ons you can buy. The price is $9.99 for both the Android and IOS versions. There is no web-based version for casual users or those who want to try before buying.
Google Earth is free and available as a web app for the Chrome browser, mobile apps for Android and IOS, and a desktop program for Linux, Windows, and Mac.
This video on YouTube gives a nice introduction to Google Earth and some tips on how it’s useful and how to get started using it.