Amid the frenetic day-to-day of work, bills, taxes and meetings, we sometimes forget how insignificant our lives are in the grand scheme of things. All it takes is a step outside and a quick look up at the inky vast blackness above, pinpricked with dots of light… But wait, what’s that? That pesky light pollution is fogging up the view again!
So if you can’t tell your Orion’s Belt from your Big Dipper, it’s time to find some darker skies and reground yourself amid the truly bizarre puzzle that is our universe. Here are some of the best places to go stargazing around the world:
Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
New Zealand’s rugged lands are one of the main reasons people flock here, but we reckon it’s the skies they should really be visiting for. As a Dark Sky Reserve, Lake Tekapo is an astronomical delight for space lovers. Join a stargazing tour for the chance to visit the Mount John Observatory and peer at distant stars and planets through powerful telescopes.
Wiruna, New South Wales, Australia
There ain’t no party like a South Pacific Star Party, and Wiruna is the place to be. Organised by the Astronomical Society of New South Wales, this annual event allows professional astronomers and enthusiastic amateurs alike to congregate and discuss their passion. The society actually owns the land, so you know it’s going to be good, and provides observation facilities as well as accommodation.
The South Pacific Star Party takes place from 5th to 8th May this year and is (just) a three-hour drive from Sydney; a relatively short drive by Australia’s standards! Don’t forget to secure your place by signing up in advance.
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah, USA
Known to be one of the darkest parks in the USA, Natural Bridges is a great place to spot the enchanting sky ribbons of the Milky Way. Not much can compare to seeing the galaxy that contains our very own solar system, and the natural rock formations of this park offer the perfect silhouette for astrophotographers.
Cape Town, South Africa
…Or more specifically, the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO). If you hadn’t guessed by now, where there are dark skies, there are observatories! The SAAO is the oldest permanent building in Cape Town, and an excellent location to channel your inner Brian May. The star of the show – I couldn’t resist – is the Crux Constellation, which can only be found in the southern sky and is recognised for its cross shape; you could almost say it’s the ‘crux’ of this location. (Insert laughter here). I’ll stop now.
The SAAO has open nights on the second and fourth Saturday of every month, starting at 8pm.
Atacama Desert, Chile
If you’re a hardcore stargazer and an adventurous traveller, then Chile’s Atacama Desert is where you should be after dark. The Paranal Observatory sits atop a cliff in the midst of orange sands and is home to one of the largest telescopes in the world. When you look up at the canopy of stars, it’s easy to see why they chose this location.
Only a millimetre of rain falls here every year and, as it’s the desert, you’ll get immaculately clear skies, free from the orange glow of brightly-lit cities and towns.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
If you watched BBC’s Stargazing Live you may have noticed a cameo from the Mauna Kea Observatory. Hawaii is a quiet island, which means little-to-no light around to pollute the skies, so the black abyss above is entirely encompassing.
The Mauna Kea Observatory has also been built as close to the skies as possible. Sitting at an incredible elevation of 2,800 metres, Mauna Kea is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 4,267 metres in about two hours. In fact, it’s so high that there is 40% less oxygen at the summit, so give yourself plenty of time to acclimatise on the way up. If you want to get used to the altitude really slowly you can take the eight-hour hike up instead.
Manau Kea offers a free Nightly Stargazing Program which is held every night, 6-10pm, and teaches visitors about the history of the observatory and how to look through high-grade telescopes.
Astronomy events in 2016
March 9 – Total Solar Eclipse (Indonesia and Pacific Ocean)
May 6/7 – Eta Aquarids Meteor Shower
June 20 – Winter Solstice (Southern Hemisphere)
August 12-13 – Perseids Meteor Shower peak
October 21-22 – Orionids Meteor Shower peak
December 13-14 – Geminids Meteor Shower peak and Supermoon
December 21 – Winter Solstice (Northern Hemisphere)