Have you ever caught yourself star gazing, wondering what lies beyond this extraordinary planet of ours?
Especially these days, when travel is so much harder…
Yet we can travel light-years into outer space without ever stepping on a plane.
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 and love sitting on a mountain at night, far from a city, watching the stars shoot by (and making wishes!)
In other words — it’s meant to be fun!
The best star gazing requires 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 that thrive on clear skies are beginning to attract star gazing tourists.
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 make it home to a large concentration of the world's top observatories. It wasn't always like this but now, some towns are even adding small shades on their streetlights to diminish the glare.
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 the 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 gazers, 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.
I'm fortunate enough to have visited areas of the world where the firmament is so full of stars I really do feel I can reach out and touch them... and these sights have moved me: the edge of the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, the interior of Panama, the Sahara Desert and in northern Quebec, the Northern Lights that dance away the night.
The list of best places to stargaze 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...
Some countries, like Scotland, are even turning to dark skies to attract tourists with initiatives like 'Dark Sky Scotland' — Scotland's forests have some of Europe's darkest skies.
We keep hearing the term "dark skies" but what does it mean — surely more than the obvious? And what is dark sky stargazing?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, dark skies are "places where the darkness of the night sky is relatively free of interference from artificial light."
The Dark-Sky Movement is a campaign that was created as a result of growing light pollution. Here's a simple explanation about the movement and its goals.
There has been a new trend in the past few years towards dark sky parks, also called dark sky preserves. These parks promote astronomy and are designed to keep human-made light away. They started in Canada but are spreading to the US and Europe.
To qualify as a dark skies site, the International Dark-Sky Association has developed a grading system that divides sites into several designations that include communities, parks, sanctuaries and reserves. These places must meet certain criteria to join and there is a full-fledged application and certification program that can take up to three years.
I'd say all this is much needed.
Have you noticed how there always seems to be light everywhere?
I live in a tiny village in Eastern France and the street lights are so bright they shine right through my house at night. Yet my village has a single road, never used by pedestrians, and the 10 cars that do use it each day are well ensconced into their garages by nightfall.
So who is all that light for? It's there... just because.
I also live near a nature area, a mountain seemingly far from "civilization". It beckons with its zillion stars at night, its quiet and its mystery.
Or it should, but in reality, two distant mountains surround the area and behind each lies a major city. You can't see or hear the city lights, but you can certainly see their reflection against the clouds of the night sky — not black, but a pasty and hazy grey which looks as though someone had thrown up buckets of dust into the air.
But that doesn't mean all is lost: I can still easily stargaze. And so can you.
Here’s how you can decide to go star gazing tonight. (You’ll get the best stargazing conditions in winter, when there is no summer haze to disrupt your vision. But don't write summer off: last night, mid-July here in France, was amazing!)
Do the best you can, whether from your balcony, your garden or a little corner down the street. If you feel like going further afield, you could paddle along a nearby river or across a lake or head for the mountains or desert (not a great idea on your own, though). A night hike could be fun, or a mountain bike ride (again, not solo).
Maybe there is light all around where you live, but there will be one spot that is just a little darker, where the stars and the planets will be just a little more visible.
By the way, higher up is better.
At night, obviously, but anytime around a new moon. A new moon isn’t easily visible and its light won’t wash away everything else in sight.
You’ll need a comfortable chair to sit on, and appropriate clothes (it can get cool at night). If you have them, pack binoculars. Think of something to drink and a snack, if you plan to stay out a while. And get a flashlight! I'll tell you why in a second...
If you’re at home, that’s easy to do: just turn out the lights and your eyes will automatically begin to acclimate. And that’s why you need the flashlight, so you don’t trip over anything once the lights are out.
Begin by looking at the moon — it’s not as flat as you might think, and there’s a reason it has been likened to Swiss cheese. After you’ve watched the moon for a while, look around for planets: they’re the large ones that don’t twinkle. (The twinkling ones are the stars.)
Beyond these, you can start looking at constellations, or groups of stars. These are best seen with a night sky map or a star gazing map (I’ve listed a few resources at the bottom of this page).
Who knows, you might even spot the International Space Station. You can have a bit of fun by checking out this site to find out when it might be flying over you.
Just remember, all you need is to look upward, on a clear night, with an open mind.
—Updated 1 December 2020