Earlier this month the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) observatory in the Elqui Valley of northern Chile’s Andean mountains was designated the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a non-profit organisation based in Tuscon, Arizona in the US.
The night sky has inspired our art and literature since early civilisation. Being cut off from that source by light pollution is to be deprived of something essential to our humanity
Dark skies are increasingly rare: as the human population becomes more and more urbanised, man-made lights obscure our view of the stars and other celestial features.
“About two thirds of human population today live under light polluted skies, not dark enough to see the Milky Way,” says Babak Tafreshi, director of The World at Night (TWAN), an international organisation that curates and exhibits astrophotographs.
“Most city skies today are virtually empty of stars. Watching the spectacular arch of the Milky Way rising over the horizon sounds like a scene of science fiction to many kids and young people raised in urban areas.”
Dr John Barentine, program manager at the IDA adds: “The night sky has inspired our art and literature since early civilisation. Being cut off from that source by light pollution is to be deprived of something essential to our humanity.”
And some experts point out light pollution can disrupt the navigational ability of animals including turtles, fish and butterflies.
The best views of stars and other celestial features require a sky that is both dark and clear.
This usually means remoteness from artificial lights and good weather, although natural light can at times obscure a view of the stars: “You won’t see many stars in a clear full moon night, nor in a summer night of high latitude regions where the polar twilight prevents total darkness,” explains Tafreshi.
Barentine says that arid environments offer some of the best dark and clear skies, but adds: “People shouldn’t overlook the skies wherever they happen to live. On any clear night there’s much to see in the night sky, even for city-dwellers.”
Some of the world’s most astonishing night skies are over places that are very remote and hard to reach, while other sites are astrotourism hotspots encompassing national parks and observatories.
Here are 10 of the best places on Earth for a view of the night sky at its most magnificent.
1. The Sahara
Stretching for 3,500,000 sq miles (9,000,000 sq km) – equating 10% of the African continent – the Sahara is the world’s largest hot desert. This extreme, hot and dry environment and the remoteness from civilisation of the desert’s interior make for some of the most spectacular views of the stars on Earth.
Namibia is home to a growing industry in astrotourism, with the Namib Desert's extremely dry weather and pristine skies perfect for the activity. The desert, one of the world’s oldest and largest, features a number of “telescope farms”, says Tafreshi. “The landscape is ideal for stargazing. Looking around you can see a 360-degree panorama of the horizon.”
3. The Empty Quarter, Arabian Peninsula
The Empty Quarter in the south-eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula is one of the largest continuous deserts in the world, covering an area of about 250,000 sq miles (650,000 sq km). As its name suggest, the desert is almost empty of people.
4. Atacama Desert, Chile
Pristine night skies hang above most areas of the Atacama Desert, says Tafreshi. The world’s most arid desert, located in Chile and small parts of Peru, Bolivia and Argentina, is also home to several astronomical observatories. “Atacama beats many other dark sky places by being high and dry and clear for so many nights per year. Walking on the desert between the scattered rocks and boulders on the pale red dust feels like being on Mars but under the Earth sky.”
5. La Palma, Canary Islands
The volcanic island of La Palma Island, part of Spain’s Canary Islands archipelago is a popular destination with astrotourists for its astonishingly clear skies. In 2002 the entire island was named a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Biosphere Reserve.
The “crystal clear skies of high hiking treks and Himalayan villages” are among the world’s best, according to Tafreshi. The Himalayan mountain range in Asia is the world’s highest, and includes Mount Everest, which at over 29,035ft (8,850m) above sea level is the tallest mountain on Earth.
7. Volcanoes of Hawaii
Hawaii’s high volcanoes are home to several well-known observatories. The volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, both more than 4,000m above sea level, are among the island’s volcanoes most famous for their views of starry skies.
8. Western Australia
Photographs of the west of Australia’s Outback taken by satellite reveal just how dark the region is, says Tafreshi. “The many National Parks in the area are favourite places for stargazing,” he says. “The southern hemisphere sky is even more eye-catching than the northern view due to the Milky Way bright central area rising overhead."
9. The Alps
“The last remaining natural night sky in Western Europe is in the Alps,” says Tafreshi. This is due to low population, preserved areas and the mountain range’s high altitude. “One of my favourites has been Tyrol region in Austria [where it’s] easy to see the pristine night sky.”
10. Wyoming, US
“There are many wonderfully dark places here in the American West, which is where I’m originally from,” says Barentine.
“Many of these sites are parks and similarly protected areas such as nature preserves. National parks in the US and elsewhere are often fantastic places to experience authentically dark night skies, since they tend to be relatively far from cities and relatively undeveloped in terms of installations of artificial lighting.”
Sparsely populated Wyoming, home to Yellowstone National Park, is one such state known for offering stunning views of night skies.
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