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Star Gazing: Travel from the Earth Up

Women on the Road
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Have you ever caught yourself star gazing, wondering what lies beyond this extraordinary planet of ours?

So far and so mysterious

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.

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 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 makes it home to a large concentration of the world's top observatories. It wasn't always like this but now 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 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. 

One country is capitalizing on tourism of the heavens with an initiative called 'Dark Sky Scotland' - Scotland's forests have some of Europe's darkest skies.

But wait... we keep hearing the term "dark skies" but what does it mean - surely more than the obvious?

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 pollutionHere'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 man-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?

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. At least that's how it should be 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. It is not black, but a pasty and hazy grey which looks as though someone had thrown up buckets of dust that are still clinging in the air.

But that doesn't mean all is lost...

How to stargaze

You can just head for a truly dark place and gaze up at the sky.

Don't know which place is truly dark? Then check out this map for dark skies near you.

Or you can be a bit original (and don't forget your star map, guide or app for IOS or Android):

  • paddle along a river or across a lake on a crystal clear night
  • visit an observatory (here are some suggestions from Viator)
  • use your own telescope at home
  • learn a little bit about astronomy
  • 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)
  • take a star-gazing tour

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 great star-gazing places 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...

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