The recently released book “Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism” lists sites around the world where people can see the stars without light pollution.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with author Valerie Stimac (@Valerie_Valise).
By Valerie Stimac
When the cloudy expanse of the Milky Way stretches above us from horizon to horizon, or a meteor streaks across the sky, or a rocket defies gravity to leave earth, it touches on a sense of wonder and awe. There is something breathtaking and humbling about the knowledge that beyond the protective layer of our atmosphere, there is a lot more out there. The universe is vast almost beyond comprehension: while technology helps increase our knowledge of moons, planets, and suns, we can hardly imagine how many other places there are in our solar system, galaxy, and the universe once you leave planet earth.
The natural world on earth never ceases to amaze us; we make pilgrimages to Everest, Niagara, the Amazon, and countless other awe-inspiring sites on our bucket list. But somehow, the night sky is often omitted from the list of natural experiences we should seek out. Yet its magnificence can be even more overwhelming than terrestrial wonders. For millions of years, the stars have wheeled overhead, and the planets have performed their celestial dance. Observing this pageant used to be a nightly ritual for humans across the planet each night until very recently. But while we often book trips to explore new cities and try new foods, we rarely do the same for astronomical phenomena and space experiences. We may have gone stargazing as a kid or learned about astronomy in school, but we don’t journey to discover it first-hand. Yet according to a 2016 atlas by the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute, 99% of the populations of Europe and the US no longer have access to the night sky due to light pollution. In not seeking out encounters with astronomical phenomena, whether at the certified dark sky parks listed in this book or by viewing a meteor shower or eclipse, we deprive ourselves of a magical experience.
What drives our collective interest in the night sky? It’s likely the case that the roots of astronomy lay deep in the prehistoric era, among the first homo sapiens who became aware that the movements of the sun, moon, and stars were not random. In an attempt to find significance among these patterns, religious beliefs were established to help make sense of the natural phenomena. These religious beliefs remain closely tied to astronomy to this day, as reflected by practice of astrology (the idea that the movement and placement of stars and planets have a direct impact on our daily lives).
A more modern interpretation might also say that though we did not always know with scientific certainty that there was ‘more’ beyond earth, our human nature to explore and colonize drives us to look toward the stars. In the 21st century, it’s likely that our efforts and investment will take us to other planets in our solar system at the very least. While we have spent centuries learning about the night sky, our time exploring it has only just begun.
The most easily accessible way to enjoy the night sky is by stargazing, looking up at the constellations and planets visible either with the naked eye or through a telescope. Astronomy dates back nearly 5,000 years, to the Bronze Age. While there aren’t many records from this time, archaeoastronomers have discovered evidence and relics that suggest that from among the earliest periods in human history, we were attentive to the night sky and attempted to record the patterns observed there. Nearly every major civilization at one time was involved in the study of astronomy. Major sites testifying to the astronomical knowledge of earlier cultures remain in the Yucatan, at Uxmal and Chichen Itza; at Chaco Canyon; and at the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, and more.
Early contributions by civilizations like the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Indians are still used in astronomy today. Over the centuries, the amalgamation of work by Chinese, Islamic, Egyptian, and European astronomers helped solidify astronomy into a scientific field in its own right. During the medieval era, astronomy was advanced significantly by the work of Islamic astronomers. While astronomy was actively practiced in Asia, Islamic astronomers helped with the translation from ancient Greek to Latin of fundamental astronomy texts by thinkers including Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy. As a result European astronomers were able to recommit to the science of astronomy that was at risk of being lost. Islamic astronomers also created some of the most accurate calendars, predictive models, and recorded observations of astronomical phenomena in human history.
Later, Renaissance astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus helped initiate the Scientific Revolution which fundamentally shifted human understanding of astronomy and science in the 15th and 16th centuries. While the idea of a heliocentric universe had been proposed centuries before by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, Copernicus’ reassertion that the earth orbited the sun became one of the most controversial ideas of human history. Physicists and astronomers including Galileo, Kepler, and Newton helped drive forward our understanding of the universe using this new model.
After initial resistance by the Catholic Church, the Copernican theory was accepted and knowledge about astronomy and astrophysical principles began to receive global consensus. The Copernican revolution came to its natural conclusion with the discovery of a series of scientific laws that helped us understand the night sky and our place in it. Between the 17th and 20th centuries, the rate of discoveries by observational astronomers increased exponentially as the astronomical objects and phenomena laid out by these new laws was confirmed. Findings included the discoveries of planets, moons, asteroids, and comets in our solar system as well as more distant galaxies, nebulae, exoplanets, and black holes. New observing technology developments accelerated our rate of discoveries too. First invented in 1608, simple telescopes became increasingly powerful at observing the heavens. While there continued to be disagreement in reconciling religious and scientific beliefs about the solar system and universe, these were for the most part relegated away from the steady advancement of human knowledge of planets and moons, asteroids and comets, nebulae, supernovas, and galaxies.
During the 20th century, massive strides were made to improve astronomical technology for observing the skies, and our theoretical understanding made similar strides after Einstein’s breakthroughs around General and Special Relativity. The light we see from the stars and planets has to travel across space to reach earth; as a result, understanding how light moves is fundamental to understanding Building on the massive legacy from civilizations and centuries of astronomy, scientists have been able to ask the deepest questions about the origins of the universe – and have begun to craft answers based on the observational data and theoretical models we have developed. As the 21st century continues, we are closer than ever to understanding the night sky, but still have a lot we don’t even know to ask. When we look up at the stars and galaxies in the night sky, we are seeing the death of old stars in supernova, the birth of new ones in stellar nebulae (also sometimes called ‘nurseries’), and in some cases, the impacts of invisible-to-use black holes on the space around them.
Even the space race of the 20th century was in part driven by the pull we feel to reach the stars. Milestones such as putting the first man in space or reaching the moon were meaningful because they took significant steps beyond our planet – the place we have called home for millennia. The human race to space has continued to launch satellites, orbiters, space telescopes, and rovers to explore deeper into space to better understand how the universe works.
The latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century has also seen the rise of the dark sky preservation movement. Driven by international organisations like the International Dark-Sky Association, national bodies like the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and local institutions and advocacy groups, there is an increasing focus on preserving the dark sky where it is still visible, or in some cases reverting back to darker skies through infrastructure planning and lighting replacements. Many of the locations mentioned in this book are destinations focused on dark sky preservation, and some have received designations for their work preserving the darkness. If you think you’ve seen the night sky but you’ve never witnessed it from a location with a truly dark sky, you’re in for the surprise of a lifetime.
The skies above us are part of our heritage, both natural and cultural. Astronomy and stargazing are an important part of human history, one that can connect us back to early myth or awaken us to the vast scale of our Universe and its many mysteries. Witnessing the sweep of the Milky Way, the remains of passing comets as they burn up in our atmosphere, or the shimmering aurora, we better understand space and our place in it. his book will help you experience all of this and more first-hand, so that you can glimpse some of the celestial wonder yourself.. Whether you visit a professional observatory, take part in Space Camp, observe a meteor shower, or merely spot the constellations above, your journey will deepen your knowledge and appreciation for our planet and the universe as a whole.
How to Use this Book
This book is divided into sections based on whether it’s about witnessing the dark sky at a specific preserve, observing a natural phenomena such as a meteor shower, eclipse, or the aurora up close, or travelling to a major telescope or laboratory. You can even explore the options for suborbital space flight! Alternatively, maybe you won’t be travelling anywhere but up, by looking at the heavens directly in your backyard. In each section, you’ll learn about different space-related activities, then gain an understanding of where and how to have that experience.
Stargazing focuses on the basics of appreciating the dark sky. In it, you’ll find an overview on how to stargaze and what types of objects you can look for in the night sky. You’ll also find tips on urban stargazing, which most people can do no matter where they live There’s information on getting more involved with stargazing communities, including by joining astronomy clubs, visiting observatories, and attending star parties. You’ll get some tips on how to shoot astrophotography and how you can give back through citizen science that uses the support of ordinary people on earth to analyze and answer some of our biggest questions about space.
Dark Places is devoted to highlighting 35 of the best places around the globe for stargazing and experiencing the night sky. While this section is far from exhaustive, it includes locations across the globe that are designated dark sky places. These designated places take additional measures to reduce light pollution and ensure that if the skies are clear you’ll see the stars (nothing can help you overcome a cloudy night, alas). There are also dark places in this section which do not have a formal designation but which possess a special attraction for stargazing and astrotourism.
Astronomy in Action focuses on destinations and experiences where you can get a closer look at space science. In this section you’ll recognize some of the world’s top research facilities and observatories. Most of these locations are open to the public (though often on limited schedules) meaning you can plan to visit them on a trip to the area – or even make astronomy the sole focus of your trip.
Meteor Showers has everything you need to know about some of the most consistent and impressive meteor showers of each year. Meteor showers occur throughout the year on a regular schedule star.’ You’ll learn about the science behind meteor showers, when they occur and nights of peak activity, and where to look in the night sky to try and see meteors.
Aurora is devoted to another breathtaking astronomical phenomena: the aurora. The section is subdivided into two parts, focusing on the aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere and the aurora australis in the southern hemisphere. You’ll get guidance on where to see the aurora in each country where they commonly occur, plus some tips on other destinations where it’s possible (but rare) to see the aurora.
Eclipses is devoted to the science and schedule of total solar eclipses in the next decade so you can plan your trip and become an eclipse chaser. You’ll learn about where the path of totality will occur for each eclipse plus how to get there and what else you can experience in the region once the solar eclipse is over.
Launches helps you experience a different side of astrotourism: rockets. Countries around the world are actively launching rockets to send instruments, supplies, and humans to space, and you can travel to launch locations around the globe.
Space Tourism discusses the future of humans in space–including you! In this section you’ll learn about the major players in the rapidly evolving space tourism market, plus some of the common destinations and experiences for going to space.
In the Appendices, you’ll find additional resources on some of the topics covered in other sections of the book. You’ll learn about the Bortle Dark Sky Scale, which helps scientists understand how dark the sky is in different areas–and you can find out how dark the sky where you live. There’s also an extended schedule of eclipses to help you plan your eclipse chasing adventures.
This book is not an encyclopedia of astronomy or the comprehensive guide to all space-experiences in the world. There are many places not listed here where you can enjoy the aurora, see meteors and stars in a dark night sky, and even marvel at the human ingenuity that is making us an multi-planetary species. Instead, use this book as inspiration. Let it spark an idea that you can enjoy your next destination after the sun goes down, add on a few extra days for one of these experiences, or plan a trip to enjoy the night sky anywhere in the world.
Excerpted from “Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism” by Valerie Stimac. Copyright © 2019 by Valerie Stimac. Republished with permission of Lonely Planet.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.