When and where on earth do we get the best view of the Milky Way?

I believe it helps

  • if it is night
  • if it is winter
  • to look in the direction of the galaxy center

I think that this information from wikipedia:

The Galactic plane is inclined by about 60 degrees to the ecliptic (the plane of the Earth's orbit).

is needed, but I can still not figure it out.

I am hoping to get a general sense of what to expect when and where, so that I can make sure to enjoy the view on future travels.

Edit: From the answer of @Johannes and corresponding comment of @WetSavannaAnimal aka Rod Vance, I believe that a good time and place is December to February on the southern hemisphere. So what is the optimum? New years eve on the South pole?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ While this is completely on-topic here, if you don't get an answer in a suitable time frame you might want to ask/have it migrated to astronomy.stackexchange.com But let it sit a bit before doing that, somebody here could probably answer it! $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Nov 30 '13 at 2:46
  • $\begingroup$ If you want to travel, you may be better off simply finding the darkest possible skies near you on the appropriate part of the year. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 30 '13 at 11:37

You need three things to get a great view on the Milky Way: 1) no bright lights (no sun in view, no moon in view, and no other lights blinding you), 2) no objects obstructing your view on the sky (no tall buildings, no trees, no clouds), and 3) your patch of earth oriented such that the Milky Way core is roughly positioned above you.

Earth makes its annual orbit around the sun close to the rim of the disc of stars called Milky Way. Around December-January earth is positioned further from the Milky Way center (the galactic core) than sun, while around July-August the earth is positioned closer than sun to the center of our galaxy. So, on days early and late in the year and nights in mid-year, when looking up, we look towards the center of our Galaxy. As at daytime you are blinded by sun light, the best time to enjoy a good view on the Milky Way are (moonless) July-August nights.

On moonless December-January nights you can still see the Milky Way, but as you are looking towards the rim the views are much less impressive.

EDIT: your position on earth will determine how high in the sky you will see the Milky Way, but otherwise doesn't enter the equation really: July-August puts up the best spectacle for the Northern hemisphere as well as the Southern hemisphere.

See http://twanight.org/newTWAN/photos/3001899.jpg for a comparison between a February (galactic edge) and a July (galactic core) full-sky view of the Milky Way.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For people in the southern hemisphere, we impart the Summer-Winter transposition operator to this answer. Also, the sixty degree angle between the two ecliptics (galactic and solar) is not really relevant: the galaxy is quite thick in astronomical units. So 60 degrees just means we move "up and down" in the "vertical" direction (normal to the galactic ecliptic) by a distance of $\sin 60^o$ astronomical units as we go around the Sun - not much compared with the galaxy's thickness. $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Nov 30 '13 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ @WetSavannaAnimal aka Rod Vance: Do you know the optimal time and place? -see my edit. $\endgroup$ – hpekristiansen Nov 30 '13 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Johannes: Cool this really helps -but you forget that I am willing to travel to get a better view. -see my edit. $\endgroup$ – hpekristiansen Nov 30 '13 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Hans-PeterE.Kristiansen I don't mean that the southern is better than the northern hemisphere (unless there is some e.g. meterological conditions such as more haze consistently in one hemisphere). I just mean that I think Johannes's answer as written applies only to the northern hemisphere (southern winters = northern summers) $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Nov 30 '13 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ @WetSavannaAnimalakaRodVance - yes, I mean July-August is the best time of the year. Have edited my answer to avoid the terms 'summer' and 'winter'. $\endgroup$ – Johannes Nov 30 '13 at 11:29

You can use planetarium software to locate Milky Way precisely.

Generally, if you want to observe Milky Way center, which is in Sagittarius constellation, you should exclude the time, where the Sun is there (at that time Sagittarius is up in daytime and not visible). This occurs in December-January and does not depend on geographic location. All close months are also bad. So, the best are opposite months -- June and nearby.

Since Milky Way is a very dim fuzzy circle around entire sky and does not coincide with Earth equator, you will see it at any night at any location with very few exclusions.

The most important condition is darkness -- i.e. far from urban areas.

Also look for nebulae objects.


According to this website (I am struggling to find any primary literature, though this phenomenon is reported in many places), night vision is impaired above altitudes of 5000 feet.


Thus in addition to the requirement for darkness, you also don't want to be high in the mountains.

I can anecdotally testify to this - I personally found the Milky Way, Magellanic clouds etc. far more impressive at Siding Springs observatory, Australia (alt 1150m) than at Paranal in Chile (alt 2635m) in equally dark skies.

Possibly hyperventilation would help!?


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