If you live in a city, there are chances that you don’t see the stars too often, between inclement weather conditions and light pollution, it’s become nearly impossible to look at the Milky Way and the visible planets in our sky. In fact, the light pollution is so bad that you have to go way out of your way to find a sky dark enough. Here are 4 spots around the world for some decent stargazing.
France: Pic du Midi Observatory
In the High-Pyrenees, at 2877 meters, the Pic du Midi Observatory is standing high since 1882. Quite a venerable institution, it is still a working observatory. It even houses the largest telescope in France. One of its claims to fame is that it was tasked by NASA to take pictures of the Moon in preparation for the Appolo mission landing.
Part of the observatory has been turned into a museum and it can be reached through 2 cable cars. What distinguishes the Pic du Midi is that you can actually spend the night at the observatory. A whole experience that starts with the visit of the Observatory, admiring the sunset over the mountains, enjoying a delicious meal cooked by a chef and then, observing the night sky with the naked eye and through a telescope. Once your eyes have had their fill of starry wonders, you can go back to your room for a good night’s sleep. If you are on a budget, the observatory also organizes evening astronomy workshops.
Chile: The Mecca for Dark Skies
Chile is probably one of the best places on Earth for observing the sky at night, especially in the North. First, because the Southern Hemisphere sky has more stars than the Northern’s and second, because of the excellent conditions for astronomical observations. Two regions are famous for stargazing: the Atacama Desert and the Elqui Valley. The Atacama desert is the driest desert on our planet and with a pure atmosphere, it makes it a prime spot for astronomy! Chances are if you are staying at San Pedro de Atacama that you will come across a stargazing tour.
If the middle of the desert is more geared towards research (with no less than 3 European Southern Observatories sites), the Elqui Valley, at the southern edge of the desert, has several observatories that can be visited. The most important is Mamalluca, just about 20 kilometers out of the town of Vicuña. Stargazing tours with telescope are organized every day, in Spanish and English. Since it’s the largest, you may find yourself with a lot of other visitors.
For a more intimate experience, we recommend the Observatory del Pangue, a small public observatory which limits the number of people on a tour to 10. You will have a chance to really interact with the astronomer in charge and won’t have to fight to look through the telescope. A little more expensive than Mamalluca but so worth it!
Canada : Mont-Mégantic Observatory
The situation of this mountain inside the Mont-Mégantic National Park made it a good reason to build an astronomical observatory in the 70s. However, the growth of the city of Sherbrooke, which is just nearby, and other communities, caused a light pollution problem. Something had to be done! This led to the creation of the first Dark-sky reserve as a way to control the issue. Now, there is a whole network of reserves, parks and communities overseen by the International Dark-sky Association.
Mont-Mégantic Observatory is easily reachable from Montreal and welcomes astronomy enthusiasts in its ASTROLab, an activity center. You will learn about the history of the Universe and our Earth, take a daytime tour of the observatory… Astronomy evenings are also organized regularly. One of the big events of the year is the astronomy festival (during the summer) and there is a special night devoted to the Perseid meteors shower in mid-August. Make sure you visit when night activities are planned.
What’s more, since the observatory is nestled in a National Park, biking and hiking are some of the many activities you can do during the daytime. A perfect combo: getting close to nature during the day, and having your head in the sky in the evening.
Niue: A Dark-sky Country
You will need a map for this one! Niue is a small island nation located in the South Pacific. Its closest neighbors are the Tonga Islands, Cook Islands and New Zealand but it is still quite remote. Until recently, it was known for being one of the largest coral islands in the world and one of the smallest independent nation (there’s only just above 1000 inhabitants).
Since March 2020, Niue can add that it is the first Dark-sky country! The inhabitants of Niue are Polynesians and stars are an important part of this seafaring culture. Ancient Polynesians knew the art of star navigation, guiding mariners who were brave enough to face the open ocean.
This knowledge allowed Polynesians to boldly go where no one had gone before and spread throughout the Pacific, from Tahiti to Hawaii, from Rapa Nui to New Zealand. Going there is not easy (there are planes from New Zealand or ferries from the Tonga and Cook Islands) but you will be rewarded by friendly Niueans who live a simple life and are happy to share what they have and what they know. You can hike, spot dolphins and whales, go diving in a pristine environment and of course, watch the Austral sky at night complete with a light warm South Pacific breeze. We want to be there, already!
Need more information for your starry nights? We recommend you visit the website of the International Dark-sky Association? They are running the International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) Program “ to encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education”.