The Arrowhead region of Minnesota which contains Lutsen’s Caribou Highlands, has white snow and dark skies. In this area the winter is good for both downhill skiing and stargazing. Like the downhill skier, the winter astronomer needs to take certain steps to enjoy his or her activity during the cold northern nights. Still, both have a reason to bundle up, and go out where the fun is.

“This winter, stars are especially bright and numerous in the southern regions like Orion and Taurus and Canis Major. In a dark sky location they really leap out and are brilliant against the darkness of space,” said Arrowhead Astronomical Society facilitator Eric Norland. “The winter skies just seem to have more bright stars. That is a real treat to see.”

Many astronomers have pointed out that the skies are clearer in the winter due to low moisture in the air. Eric says this isn’t always the case. He mentions that often there is a very fine snowfall that has some effect on telescope viewing but is not even noticeable for naked eye observing.

Stargazing and light painting in Northern MN

Let’s face it—people are bad for astronomy. We all blast our house lights upward and drown out the stars. These effects are felt much less in the Arrowhead region, which is far from any major city. The winter further mitigates the manmade barriers to astronomy.

“In the summer, more people are out doing things at night and they will drive by and blind you with their car lights,” said Eric. “In the winter it is generally more peaceful outside.”

Sometimes it is the smallest of creatures that cause the most problems. There are many dark and isolated places in Minnesota that are filled with bugs during the summer. After a few minutes of summer observing in these often swampy areas, you might be tempted to put your telescope on Craigslist. In the winter you can enjoy looking up with a low swat factor.

The other big adversary to stargazing is the sun. Stars are always up there but during the day they are outshined by our closest star. During the winter, the shorter days and longer nights mean there is more time the stars can come out and play.

“The sun sets around 5 PM at midwinter and the sun does not rise until 8am. Thus, there can be an observing window of 15 hours to look at the evening sky,” said Eric. “Also, it is nice in the morning to get up at 6 AM and see a few planets and still have time for breakfast and to go to work.”

Winter is also known for particular objects to look at.

“The winter night sky has a few very beautiful telescope objects to look at,” said Eric. “First is the Orion Nebula. Situated right below the middle belt star, this nebula is the birthplace of young, hot stars. Another great telescope object is the Andromeda galaxy and it is situated high in the winter sky. So, it is better to look at with a telescope as less light is passing through the atmosphere.”

Eric knows the cold winter nights must be treated with respect. He recommends dressing warmly and having a warm car or a warm building to retreat to. He cautions against wearing shoes, encouraging the use of warm boots instead. Then, it is all about layers and hats. In his experience mittens are better than gloves. Although he has to take them off to adjust the telescope, they insulate much better while on.

Sometimes when it is very cold Eric has even taken a quick jog to warm up. He says it raises his metabolism and helps him warm up so he can keep looking up. When you’re seeing the stars, make sure you comfortable so you can keep your focus where it counts.