Words by Christina Huntington
From natural sites in Sweden, China and the USA to observatories in Chile, Hawai’i and Spain, we set our sights on the world’s best stargazing destinations and put together an essential stargazer’s must-have kit to match.
Atacama Desert, Chile
This desert has one of the darkest, clearest night skies on Earth making it a number one stop for astro-tourists. High altitude, clear skies, dry climate, and low light pollution provide the perfect combination of elements for prime stargazing. The Paranal Observatory holds the Very Large telescope, one of the world's biggest. Specialised tours abound, leading the quest for the perfect cosmic viewing. But it is the ‘ALMA Observatory that has space enthusiasts clamouring to visit.
Here, the world’s strongest radio telescope is able to look billions of light years into deep space, all in broad daylight.
The northernmost town in Sweden is preparing to become Europe's new space tourism centre. The Space Travel Alliance, along with the Esrange Space Centre, aim to offer civilians short trips into space. These space jumps' would reach a 100-kilometre altitude, allowing tourists a space-eye-view of Earth in zero gravity before descending back home. Until then, the cosmically curious should visit during winter's perpetual darkness for stunning views of the Northern Lights without the need for any equipment. An added bonus is the Kiruna Snow Festival, home of the international snow sculpting championships, with giant jaw-dropping snow sculptures on display January 27–30, 2016.
Yangtze River Valley, China
Located in China’s lush countryside along Asia’s longest river, the Yangtze River Valley offers beautiful views of the night sky. Here, one can become immersed in China’s long-standing history of astronomy, dating back to the 4th Century B.C. The Chinese built some of the oldest known observatories between 1276 and 1442. Ancient stargazers carefully mapped the movements of the celestial bodies for their
solilunar calendar, resulting in the production of the oldest existing complete map of the stars. Hike through the Three Gorges area of the Yangtze for mountain views or take a river cruise for glittering views from the water.
Hovenweep National Monument, USA
Hovenweep National Monument in Utah contains six Ancestral Puebloan village ruins believed to date back as far as 900 AD. Several solar calendar petroglyph panels still amongst the ruins suggest that this ancient agricultural community relied on astronomy to track summer and winter solstices and aid in crop planting. Now a national monument, Hovenweep is a certified gold-tier International Dark Sky Park, ensuring that the natural night sky will be preserved for many generations of future stargazers. A remote and wild stretch of the Utah and Colorado border, this off-the-beaten path destination requires that one be their own tour guide.
Mauna Kea, Hawai’i
On the Big lsland of Hawai'i, Mauna Kea is home to a prestigious collection of observatories and telescopes for optical, infrared and submillimetre astronomy. Located 4200 metres up the summit of the mountain, the best time to visit Mauna Kea Observatories is when the sun can be viewed setting behind the cloud line instead of the ocean. Once the observatory closes at dusk, the Visitor Information Station halfway down the slope offers a free stargazing program every night of the week from 6–10pm, no reservations required. Organised stargazing tours are also available for those who want a personalised experience.
Canary Islands, Spain
Spain's Canary Islands offer myriad venerable stargazing destinations and events. The Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma boasts the largest single-aperture optical telescope in the world — the Great Canary Telescope. Tenerife, the most-visited of the islands, is home to the semi-annual Starmus Festival. A science conference unlike any other, Starmus is an international celebration of the cosmos hosting talks by such luminaries as Stephen Hawking, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong. It was created by Queen's lead guitarist Brian May (who also holds a doctorate in astrophysics).
September 13, 2016