Star Struck: Top 10 Locations For Stargazers
In August 2017, a solar eclipse will take place which will be visible from a narrow band stretching across the entire US. But if you want to admire the night sky, there are plenty of options closer to home. Here are the places which should be on the hit lists of all budding astronomers.
Tamara Hinson is a Surrey-based freelance travel journalist who writes for newspapers such as the Telegraph and Guardian, along with in-flight publications and travel websites. She’s especially interested in getting off the beaten track and some of the more unusual destinations she’s visited include North Korea and Benin.
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Stargazers are spoiled for choice in Norway. In the remote ski resort of Trysil, in the east, visitors can hire a cosy stargazing cabin for the night, while the Hurtigruten cruise line offers dedicated Astronomy Voyages along the coastline. Inland, one of the best areas to admire the night sky is the mountainous central region of Dovrefjell. “It’s the area in Norway with least clouds and precipitation,” explains Norwegian astrophysicist Knut Jørgen Røed Ødegaard. “It’s also possible to go stargazing near Oslo, in Nordmarka, a forest north of the capital. The further north you walk, the darker the skies.”
Some of the world’s best stargazing locations are closer to home, and the Yorkshire Dales National Park has four Dark Sky Discovery Sites – areas with minimal light pollution and great sightlines of the sky. “One of my favourite places is at Keldy in North Yorkshire,” reveals Colin Daley at the West Yorkshire Astronomical Society. ”It’s within Forestry Commission land, where there’s very little light pollution. Wintersett near Wakefield also has incredibly dark skies. “As for the object he loves to look at the most? “It’s got to be Mars,” says Daley. “With good conditions you can clearly see the detail of the planet’s surface.”
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Known for its fjords, glaciers and smouldering volcanoes, Iceland also has some of the world’s clearest night skies. One of the most popular stargazing destinations is Hotel Rangá in South Iceland. It has two enormous telescopes housed in an observatory with a retractable roof. “My favourite area would be Krýsuvík, next to Lake Kleifarvatn on the Reykjanes peninsula,” reveals Gísli M Auðbergsson at Iceland’s Stjornuskodunarfelag Seltjarnarness astronomical society. “You’ve got zero light pollution with a perfect view to the south, where stars gain their highest position in the night sky.”
Nova Scotia, Canada
Nova Scotia’s Kejimkujik National Park was made a Dark Sky Preserve in 2010, but it’s only one of many areas in Nova Scotia which attracts those keen to admire the solar system. “The Cape Breton Highlands have spectacular night skies,” says Dr Rob Thacker, Canada Research Chair in Astrophysics at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University. “There’s a possibility that they might be designated as a Dark Sky Preserve at some point, too. But for those who prefer home comforts, there’s always Trout Point Lodge.” This beautiful hotel is close to Yarmouth, which is located in the Tobeatic Wilderness Area – another designated Starlight Reserve.
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This remote New South Wales town is home to the Warrumbungle Observatory. Visitors can learn about astronomy with the help of resident astronomer Peter Starr (we’re assured that’s his real name) and peer at southern Australia’s dark skies through the 20-inch telescope. “Australia has incredibly dark skies and amazing views of the southern sky,” explains Dr Amanda Bauer, an astronomer at the Australian Astronomical Observatory. “You can enjoy spectacular views of the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy, along with the Southern Cross and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds – two entire galaxies which just hang in the sky.”
The Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama is one of the driest places on earth, with around one millimetre of rainfall a year. This lack of moisture is just one of the reasons it’s a great place for stargazing. “The Atacama desert almost always has clear skies,” says Bob Havlen, director of the Albuquerque Astronomical Society. “Many locations are a few thousand feet above sea level, so distortion is minimised and images are crisp and sharp.” If you’re planning a visit, make your base the Hotel Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa. It’s one of the closest hotels to the Atacama Large Millimetre Array, which has some of the world’s most powerful telescopes – head there on a Saturday or Sunday, when it’s open to the public. A top star-spotting tip? “Look for the spectacular star clusters towards the centre of the Milky Way galaxy,” suggests Bob Havlen.
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Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Head to this dormant Hawaiian volcano to view the bands of Jupiter and the constellations of Ursa Major and Orion, some of the most spectacular sights in the sky of the northern hemisphere. There are several observatories on Mauna Kea and the University of Hawaii arranges regular stargazing-themed events and tours of the area. “Mauna Kea is almost 14,000 feet above sea level, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” says Professor Robert P Kirshner at Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy. “When the sun goes down, the air cools and clouds form below the summit. It’s just the mountain, the telescopes and the stars, so bright you feel as if you could touch them.”
This northern county is home to Northumberland Dark Sky Park, the largest area of protected night sky in Europe. And at its centre is the Battlesteads Hotel, which has its own observatory and team of astronomers. “The Dark Sky Discovery Observatory at Battlesteads has an SQM reading of 21.3, meaning the skies are truly dark,” points out Roy Alexander, director and astronomer at Battlesteads Dark Sky Observatory. Weekly events at the hotel include stargazing tours, aurora hunting workshops and solar astronomy sessions, when visitors can observe the sun using purpose-built telescopes with special safety filters.
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The Grand Canyon was recently designated a Dark Sky Park, thanks to its dry, light pollution-free skies. “The rim of the Grand Canyon is the perfect natural observatory: it’s perched high atop a good portion of the atmosphere in the dry desert southwest and free from air and light pollutants experienced in most populated areas,” explains park ranger Rader Lane, who helps host the Grand Canyon’s Star Parties. Budding astronomers should also head to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, where there are regular guided tours, lectures and workshops. You’ll also be able to admire the telescope used to spot Pluto for the first time in 1930.
Los Angeles, US
Most famous for its stars of the celebrity type, Los Angeles might not be the world’s darkest place but it’s home to the Griffith Observatory, which astronomers have been flocking to since 1935. But you don’t have to be a scientist to visit – the public can admire several of the observatory’s telescopes. At the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, with its hi-tech Zeiss star projector, astronomers from all over the world present lectures, while the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theatre has a fascinating calendar of astronomy-based films. Don’t forget to check out the scale model of the solar system engraved in the pavement outside the observatory.