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Star Gazing: Travel from the Earth Up

Have you ever caught yourself star gazing, wondering what lies beyond this wonderful planet of ours?

I've always been a science fiction fan. As a little girl the planetarium was one of my favorite outings. I even asked my parents for a telescope for my 12th birthday.

I'll travel some distance for the best meteor showers.

Would you? And where would you go?

To watch the stars you need the clearest of skies. Light pollution is the enemy of star viewing - the more light the blurrier the stars.

Above most crowded cities, you're lucky if you see the sky at night. Most times you're trying to break through the haze. But some countries thrive on clear skies that attract star gazing tourism.

Take the Andean foothills of northern Chile, in South America, where astronomers gather for some of the planet's best star viewing. The Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca attracts visitors from around the world and is open to the public.

The region's desert location and rare clouds makes it home to a large concentration of the world's top observatories. It wasn't always like this - some towns have put small shades on their streetlights to diminish the glare. 

Star gazing - observatoryStargaze at the observatory

Chile is also a fabulous site for viewing the Southern Cross - it may be 180 million light years away, but you can just look up and see it with your naked eye.

In the United States, the Sonora Desert is prime star viewing real estate. Still in the US but offshore is the Hawaiian island of Mauna Kea, home to the world's largest observatory. In fact, all of Hawaii is great for watching the stars. Unfortunately for star gazing tourists, it's estimated that up to 99% of American's skies are light-polluted - and scientists predict the last authentically dark areas in the US will be gone by 2025. 

One country that's capitalizing on tourism of the heavens is Scotland, whose forests have some of Europe's darkest skieswith an initiative called 'Dark Sky Scotland.'

In the past few years a trend towards dark sky parks, also called dark sky preserves, has started growing. These parks promote astronomy and are designed to keep man-made light away. They started in Canada but are spreading to the US and Europe.

In any event the llist of places where star gazing is at its best is long enough to keep you on the road for quite some time: add to the above New Zealand, South Africa, Sark, Stonehenge, the Galapagos Islands, southern Spain, the Canaries, the island of Nevis, the Caribbean...

How to stargaze

You can just head for a truly dark place and gaze up at the sky. Or you can be a bit original (and don't forget your star map):

  • paddle along a river or across a lake on a crystal clear night
  • visit an observatory
  • use your own telescope at home
  • pack a midnight feast and jump into your car - head for the mountains or desert
  • take a night hike (best not to try this one by yourself)
  • ride your mountain bike - into the mountains (again, you're better off doubling up on this one)

I'm fortunate enough to live in a rural area with few cities around, so I get relatively clear skies. Still, there's no comparison with the skies I've experienced on the edge of the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, the interior of Panama, the Sahara Desert, the Sinai... and in northern Quebec, watching the Northern Lights.

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