You don't have to be in Hollywood to see the stars
David Leake runs Parkland's Staerkel Planetarium, has access to the University of Illinois Observatory and owns several telescopes, but he still recommends a low-tech approach to star-watching.
UI astronomy veteran Jim Kaler also points to the UI's Astronomy Department, which has a historic and restored 12-inch refractor.
But both agree: binoculars are a good way to go, especially for beginners.
"It's not about the magnitude," Leake says. Bigger isn't better. A 500-power telescope might sound like a good idea to a novice, but it's not necessary, he says.
"Most of my colleagues don't use that high level of magnitude," he says.
If you're checking out the solar system, Kaler points out that you can spot four satellites of Jupiter with binoculars.
Though they're "just satellites," they're about the size of the moon or Mercury, he says.
Kaler says many old and large telescopes have been built in areas close to the people who use them.
The 15-foot telescope in the Observatory was installed in 1896, when the Urbana campus and its surrounding cities were much smaller.
Since then, the glorious electric light bulb has proliferated, light pollution has soared and you have to go way out into the country for darkness. UI astronomers sometimes travel to Hawaii to get away from it all.
You can get on your bike or in your car to find a less light-polluted place.
Parkland's Leake says the darkest spots are the Middle Fork Forest Preserve and near the Sidney/Homer area. The Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society sponsors events each year at both the Middle Fork (Sept. 20) and at Homer Lake (Oct. 25).
"In the summer, sunset is fairly late," he says.
But you'll never find true darkness around here, or probably anywhere in Illinois.
John Stone, a member of the Champaign-Urbana Astronomy Society, has actually mapped light pollution in Champaign County.
Stone, a researcher at the Beckman Institutes, took the readings for a panorama of lit-up skies.
It shows visible light domes from Champaign and Urbana, as well as smaller ones south from Tuscola, Monticello and Decatur.
You can view his work on light pollution at http://bit.ly/1n9VI2K.
Stone has a simmering hatred for the outdoor globe streetlight, which sends half of its light up into the skies.
"It is decorative, not functional lighting," he says. About 70 percent of the energy goes to waste, he estimates.
"You can't even see the Milky Way in town; you have to go further and further away," he said.
The impact of globe lighting goes 30 miles in each direction, he added.
He does not have a kind word for the light sources.
"You can see the light of the globe, but you can't see the road or the driveways," Stone says. "Pilots don't like them. They're a waste of energy."
Even a relatively good place like the Middle Fork Forest Preserve is in danger of encroaching light pollution.
"Every windmill has aviation safety lights. Eventually (the cornfields) will succumb to the same issues as Champaign-Urbana," Stone said.
It doesn't have to be so bad.
Arizona has lighting ordinances; San Jose, Calif., restricts mercury vapor lighting, which emits light in all the different wavelengths. Sodium lights emit frequencies that an astronomer can filter out, Stone said.
Billboard lights that illuminate from above are superior to those that light from below, he said.
Prepare for a night under the stars
— University of Illinois astronomy expert Jim Kaler's "Skylights," with all kinds of info and photos, is at: http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/skylights.html
— NASA tells you when you can spot the International Space Station at http://1.usa.gov/1iu7lyJ
— SkyView allows you to point your iPhone, iPad, or iPod at the sky to identify stars, constellations and satellites at http://bit.ly/1mpzaME
— For Android users, there's Google Sky Map at http://bit.ly/STkhI8
— On the Internet, StarDate, stardate.org/nightsky, has a number of useful features.