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The International Dark Sky Park Association has designated a total of 69 Dark Sky Parks in the United States. Dark Sky Parks are committed to preserving the night sky by using a sky-quality meter to determine whether a park has too much light from ambient towns, and through street lighting and lighting paths and parking lots using only dark-sky-friendly lighting fixtures.

A Dark Sky Park must also be committed to providing educational programs to teach visitors about the importance of darkness as a resource for plants and animals like owls and other night hunters.

The sky changes with the seasons, and winter offers a wonderland of stars and constellations, such as Orion the Hunter and Canis Major -- the big dog. And Dark Sky Parks are the best places to see them due to their verified lack of ambient light.

In the West, dark skies are easier to find because there are more deserts and less urbanization. But there are also regional pockets of darkness in the Eastern US where stargazers can admire the wonders of the night sky.

STARGAZING APPS

Several good stargazing apps are available to download on your smartphone. With most of these apps, all you have to do is point your phone toward the night sky and the app will demystify what's in front of you, be it stars, planets, constellations or man-made objects like satellites, including the International Space Station. Many of them can even alert you to upcoming celestial events, so you'll never miss another meteor shower again.

- NASA app: Not only can you get the latest NASA photos, videos and features -- and watch NASA events in real-time -- you can look back down at the earth from the International Space Station.

- Star Walk 2: This app uses your GPS to find the exact position of celestial bodies. Just point your phone at the stars and let it do the work. If you're stargazing with young children, there's also Star Walk Kids for iPhones and Android. Star Walk 2 is free for Android users but costs $3 for iPhone users.

- SkyView Lite: Track your favorite constellations as they move across the sky. This is a preferred app (free) for people who only want to see the major stars overhead and not the ones you can't see.

- Star Chart: Like the others, point this free app at the sky to see what's above you. But then, when you're done, point it down on the ground to get a view of the sky on the other side of the world. Pretty cool, huh?

- SkySafari: SkySafari has all of the tools you expect in a stargazing app -- and you can even control them with your voice. Tell it to find Venus and it will. SkySafari is free for Android users and $3 for those with iPhones.

- Anne Braly
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