Published by THE METRO
'Stargazing holidays reach for the sky'
The stars have always fascinated mankind. ‘I think everyone is a stargazer at some time or another,’ says Robin Scagell, astronomy author and broadcaster. ‘You don’t have to be nerdy or a boffin to appreciate the amazing spectacle.’
Stargazing is becoming a popular activity of globetrotters seeking romance and beauty in remote destinations. In South America, backpackers and holidaymakers gaze at the Southern Cross, a distinctive constellation visible from the southern hemisphere. Its brightest stars form a cross that features on the Brazilian flag and is mentioned in the country’s national anthem.
The world’s highest desert, the Atacama in Chile, attracts thousands of visitors a year. Its combination of high altitude and dry air makes for stunning night skies. Plus, the Cerro Mamalluca Observatory organises tours.
There are parties dedicated to cosmic kicks in Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania where more than 10,000 stars are visible. Its twice-a-year star parties attract hundreds of astronomers, amateur and professional.
In Australia, the New South Wales Astronomical Society holds a South Pacific Star Party (May 14 to 16 this year) for amateurs armed with telescopes at a 100-acre site three hours from Sydney. Ayers Rock, in Northern Territory, is a striking setting on account of its clear nights. In Britain, the International Dark Sky Association last year found less than ten per cent of the population can see the Milky Way from where they live. However, there are some excellent locations. Check out the Western Isles in Scotland, central Wales, north Norfolk, Hartland Point in north Devon and Kielder Forest in Northumberland.
The crème de la stellar crème is Galloway Forest Park in Scotland, which is one of the best in the world. It won gold in the Dark Sky Parks awards in November, registering a darkness reading of 23. A rating of 24 would be measured in a photographer’s dark room, says the International Dark Sky Association. More than 7,000 stars can be spotted from the park and the Milky Way is so bright, it casts a discernible shadow. Even our neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda – 2.5million light years away – can be observed from the best pockets of darkness. Look out too for spectacular meteor showers, vivid shooting stars and expansive galaxies which, from far, far away, unfold gloriously across the sky.
For beginners, a decent pair of binoculars are a good idea and they can cost less than £50. The Helios Fieldmaster 10x50 (£44.99) and the Celestron SkyMaster (from £84.99, both available at Harrison Telescopes, www.harrisontelescopes.co.uk) are recommended by Swindon Stargazers. Its website says: ‘They can be the gateway to many a fine viewing, especially those objects such as Comet Lulin, whose trajectory is hard to pick up and you need to search a lot of sky with ease.’
In terms of easy constellations to spot with the naked eye, Orion is the clearest. Its three stars in a distinctive line point upward-right to bright star Aldebaran in the Taurus constellation, and downward-left to Sirius, the brightest star in the night’s sky. Looking north, the Plough hangs high in the east, opposite Orion, while Gemini and Auriga glimmer above it. ‘All you need is a reasonable star map and a bit of patience,’ says Scagell.
Robin Scagell’s tips are at www.stargazing.org.uk. For further reading, try Stargazing 2010, a guide to the year’s cosmic events (Philip’s, £6.99).
Top Destinations for Stargazing
Galloway Forest Park, Scotland
Mike Alexander and Steve Foy run ‘star camps’ close to Wigtown Bay. See www.gallowayastro.com/starcamp.htm Wild camping is also permitted in the park. See www.darkskyscotland.org.uk.
From the south, take the M6 to Carlisle, A75 to Newton Stewart signposted to Stranraer. From Glasgow, take the A77 to Girvan, A714 to Newton Stewart or A77 to Ayr, A713 to New Galloway.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
Nearest airport: Erie International.
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Nearest airport: Salt Lake City International. Camping is about £6.50 a night.
Atacama Desert, Chile
Nearest airport: Comodoro Arturo Merino Benitez International. For further information, see www.mamalluca.org. For accommodation, see www.elquidomos.cl
Mount John Observatory, New Zealand (pictured above)
Nearest airport: Christchurch International. Further info e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Ayers Rock, Northern Territory, Australia
Nearest airport: Adelaide, then take the Stuart Highway. For the Sounds Of Silence tour with canapés, dinner under the stars and a guide, see www.ayersrockresort.com.au/sounds-of-silence
The stars have always fascinated mankind. Their mystery has for long provided a great muse and a compelling mission for artists and scientists alike, yet their appeal is rarely lost on any human being. The habit of stargazing is in our common nature, linking the creation of the oldest star chart in 1,534BC, to a brief appreciation of a clear night on a walk home from work in our own age. “I think everyone is a stargazer at some time or another,” says Robin Scagell, a writer and broadcaster on astronomy. “You don’t have to be nerdy or a boffin to appreciate the amazing spectacle.”
At this time of year, Orion is the clearest constellation to look for. Its three stars in a distinctive line point upward-right to Aldebaran, in the Taurus constellation, and downward-left to Sirius, the brightest star in the night’s sky. The Plough hangs high in the east, opposite Orion, while Gemini and Auriga glimmer above it. To see this you won’t need the latest pair of binoculars, as these dependable cosmic wonders can be gleaned with the naked eye. “All you need is a reasonable star map and a bit of patience,” says Robin.
Sadly, the urban spread is such in the UK that even in the countryside, many are deprived of more dark delights accessible elsewhere on earth. Subdued by light pollution, many people struggle to see further than the harsh orange glare created in nearby towns and cities. Few are able to enjoy the completely dark skies necessary to observe, at most, more than a few hundred stars dotting the dome of night. “Light pollution is a major curse, and in many cases quite unnecessary,” Robin tells me. “The glare from a city spreads for hundreds of miles.”
The International Dark Sky Association found last year that less than 10% of the UK’s population can see the Milky Way from where they live. Among these exclusive and remote stargazing locations are the Western Isles in Scotland, Central Wales, North Norfolk, Hartland Point in North Devon and Kielder Forest in Northumberland.
Yet Galloway Forest Park, in Dumfries and Galloway, recently picked up an international award for its dark skies. It registered a darkness reading of 23, the highest possibly achievable – a rating of 24 would be measured in a photographer’s dark room – providing optimum viewing for stargazing. Accordingly, 7,000 stars can be spotted from the park, and the Milky Way is so bright it casts a discernable shadow. Our neighbouring galaxy, Andromeda – 2.5 million light years away – can also be observed from its prime location, while spectacular meteor showers, vivid shooting stars and expansive galaxies from far, far away unfold gloriously across the sky’s pallet.
It’s easy to conclude why Galloway Forest Park welcomes around 850,000 visitors each year. Perhaps it’s the effort to locate ourselves in the depths of the universe that makes stargazing so uniquely popular – the desire to wonder why we’re here, how we fit in, and what it’s all about. At last, there is a more accessible area in the UK to head for to indulge in this hobby.
Yet stargazing to its stunning potential will likely take you around the most isolated corners of the world. Prime spots are geographically the preserve of continents with low population densities, and therefore less light pollution from urban areas.
USA: In the Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, over 10,000 stars are visible. They host two star parties every year, attracting hundreds of astronomers, amateur and professional.
The Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah is also considered as possessing some of the world’s best views of the night’s sky, attracting some 100,000 amateur astronomers each year. As well as providing on record the world’s darkest skies, the National Moment was the first to be named an International Dark Sky Park, and is now one of fifteen such parks in the USA and Canada.
South America: There are many cosmic wonders which are exclusive to the Southern Hemisphere, such as the constellation of the Southern Cross. The Atacama Desert in Chile is the highest desert on earth, and combines its high altitude with dry air, creating stunning night skies. The Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca offers tours of the area for stargazers.
Australia: The Sydney Observatory is world-renowned, while every year, the New South Wales Astronomical Society holds the South Pacific Star Party at a 100-acre site three hours from Sydney, for those wishing to escape the city. Ayers Rock in the Australian Outback also gives a striking setting for its clear nights.
New Zealand: The Auckland Stardome offers a 360-degree dome theatre for optimum night viewing. Nearest airport: Auckland International. Accommodation: Many hostels and hotels in Auckland. The Mount John Observatory in its Southern Alps offers majestic night views in a dramatic location.
Africa: Additionally, there are many destinations in Africa which are perfect for stargazing due to its low population density and frequent cloudless night skies. Namibia in particular provides many unique lodging experiences amid the sand dunes of its vast rural retreats.