February 12, 2014 00:00 By Dietmar Denger
The nine best spots on the planet to enjoy the universe
Gazing at the night-time heavens is a thrill for the romantically inclined and astronomers alike – as long as the light generated by cities and highways does not spoil the sky’s blackness.
Luckily, there are still areas on the planet where the Milky Way appears brightly, like a rooftop of light across the sky. This is my pick on the top nine places to enjoy stargazing, and have a fantastic holiday during the daytime as well:
This area boasts 300 sunny days per year and at the end of each. a spectacular star-studded sky. Near the small city of Portimao on the southern coast, the privately run observatory Centro de Observacao Astronomica no Algarve has several high-powered telescopes providing visual access into deep space. The observatory also offers accommodation for night-time astronomers. Find it at www.COAA.co.uk
Karoo Desert, South Africa
Three hours’ drive from Capetown is Africa’s gateway to the stars. On a high-elevation plateau, at 1,800 metres altitude, stands the giant dome of the Southern African Large Telescope (Salt) beneath a crystal-clear sky. Visitors are allowed to view see the telescope’s huge 11-metre mirror, but the use of the instrument is exclusively for professional astronomers. hotels in the nearby village of Sutherland offer night-time star-gazing safaris using smaller telescopes. Amateur astronomers Hans and Tilanie Daehne organise multi-day tours for star enthusiasts, including a visit to the Salt facility. Visit www.AstroTours.co.za.
Atacama Desert, Chile
One of the most desolate, high-elevation regions on earth is a place of superlatives for viewing the skies. Some of the world’s largest telescopes are located here, including the new Atacama Large Millimetre Array (Alma), the world’s largest radio-telescope with 66 huge individual antennas. Amateur astronomers, however, must be content with using smaller antennas. At the remote Explora Atacam lodge in San Pedro de Atacama, they can make use of one of the largest privately owned telescopes in Chile. Check out www.Explora.com.
Ayers Rock, Australia
No artificial light – anywhere. For this reason the interior of Australia offers one of the clearest night-time skies anywhere on earth. The Outback at night is a paradise for star-gazers. In the middle of it all, at Ayers Rock, you can admire the Southern Cross in all its majesty. Guests at Ayers Rock Resorts are offered a star-gazing excursion called the “Sounds of Silence Tour”. Vist www.AyersRockResort.com.au.
Jasper National Park, Canada
The Canadian wilderness is also a dream destination for stargazers. Wood Buffalo National Park in the north of Alberta province has the darkest night skies in the country. More easily accessible but likewise largely free of light smog is Jasper National Park. In the winter you can also see the Northern Lights. The Fairmont Jasper hotel, with its own observatory on the roof, takes guests on a tour of the heavens. Find it at www.Fairmont.com.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 4,200 metres above sea level, 13 telescopes along the rim of the Mauna Kea volcano are trained toward the skies. Giants among them are the two Keck telescopes with their 10-metre mirrors. Tours are offered to visitors, but these do not include actual use of the telescopes. This is offered further down, at the Visitor Information Station at 2,900 metres’ elevation. Get the latest at www.IFA.Hawaii.edu.
By day, people take the Big Five tour of the wilderness of the huge savannah of eastern Africa. At night, telescopes are available to scrutinise the galaxies, stars and planets. One such facility is at the Singita Sasakwa Lodge. Check it out at www.Singita.com.
Kitt Peak, Arizona
At first sight, the 24 domes atop 2,095-metre Kitt Peak looks like some ancient temple. But it’s a place where astronomers’ dreams come true, even for day visitors. Some 50 kilometres west of the city of Tuscon is the largest collection anywhere of optical telescopes. For information, visit www.NOAO.edu/kpno.
The small village of Guelpe is a mere 80 kilometres from the historic sights of the German capital Berlin but thanks to its sparse population, its night-time sky is pretty free of light pollution. Andreas Haenel, head of the Osnabrueck Observatory, who spends his spare time travelling around Germany searching for spots that can make astronomers happy, reckons this place is the darkest anywhere in Germany. Visit www.AIP.de.