September 24, 2013
Best Vacation Hotspots Centered Around Stargazing: Exclusive
[ Watch the Video: Stargazing On Your Next Vacation - Where To Go ]
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Everyone's idea of a vacation seems to center around a beach or a resort, so how about mixing things up a bit on your next trip by venturing out to a place far from city lights, to a land that blankets you in a night sky like you've never known.
How light pollution affects a city can be best summed up with a quote from Alex the lion -- a character from the DreamWorks animated movie Madagascar -- who looks up in the New York City sky at night and says "Oh look, the star is out!" While the cityscape can really be captivating to us on some nights, it can also overwhelm our view of the beauty that lies beyond our own atmosphere.
"There have been times when bright cities have been darkened--NYC with a power blackout, and San Francisco a few years ago deliberately turning off all the lights. The main thing people notice is the Milky Way," Jim Beaber, an Adjunct Astronomy Instructor at Arapahoe Community College, told redOrbit. "When I was a kid back in 1959, I remember seeing the Milky Way all the time going outside our house in Charlottesville, VA. Today, when I take groups up to mountain observatories, one of the first questions is: 'What is that? Some kind of cloud?' And the person is pointing to the Milky Way."
So exactly why would getting away from the city help us see the night sky a little better?
Beaber explained that not even telescopes are able to sort out the city lights from star light.
"One reason that telescopes are housed inside of observatories with dome roofs and a narrow slit that opens for the telescope is to try and limit how much light is coming towards the telescope," said Beaber. "Several factors become important here. First, the Earth's atmosphere scatters light across it. The blue sky we see during the day is caused by the atmosphere scattering mainly blue wavelengths of light across the sky. You'll notice that there are no black areas during the daytime, no regions where light has failed to scatter. At night, the same thing occurs with light pollution. The sky scatters all the city light across it--you can see the glow above Denver from very far away. That scattered light will reflect down into the telescope."
Beaber explained that this problem is similar to what it's like listening to music that is being drowned out by a loud, discordant song from another nearby source.
"Your music is still playing, but it's hard to hear or make sense of it with the other music going at the same time. In a similar way, light in the atmosphere from light pollution drowns out the faint light of distant celestial objects. The object's light is coming into the telescope, but it is accompanied by city light that overwhelms it and 'washes' it out," said Beaber.
BEST STARGAZING SITES
To get an idea of some of the best places for people to visit to really experience what it is like to be blanketed by starlight rather than city lights, redOrbit reached out to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
For those wanting to get outside of the states for an international experience, Scott Kardel, a Managing Director at IDA, suggests the following locations:
*Aoraki MacKenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, New Zealand
*NamibRand International Dark Sky Reserve, Namibia
*Galloway Forest Park, Scotland
Not only will these sites offer some unprecedented views of a world before electricity helped block-out our night sky, but they can also serve as a very picturesque vacation spot during daylight hours. People not wanting to travel outside the US still have some great options for designing a vacation around stargazing. IDA recommends the following places for sites within US borders:
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Glacier National Park, Montana
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Death Valley National Park, California
Acadia National Park, Maine
Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai'i.
Kardel told redOrbit that Mauna Kea's visitor center at 9,000 feet of elevation offers free stargazing programs every night.
"My favorite place to stargaze is the Big Island of Hawaii," Beaber told redOrbit. "There are strict laws there to minimize the effects of light pollution on the Mauna Kea observatories. Lights have to have covers, and large parking lot lights are required to be low pressure sodium lights, which emit a very narrow wavelength of yellow light. These kinds of lights were popular in shopping centers during the 1970's--they are cheap and use very little electricity--but they do give everything a weird, "Night of the Zombies" appearance, as there is only yellow light to reflect off of things. The nice thing about low pressure sodium light is that it has such a narrow band of emission that it can be easily filtered out by telescopes without significantly removing the majority of the light coming in. On the Big Island, efforts to preserve the darkness of the night sky pay off with great views."
In February IDA named Death Valley National Park the largest International Dark Sky Park in the world. For those who aren't convinced about the idea of spending a few nights in Death Valley, they may be happy to know that Las Vegas, a city that is no stranger to light pollution, is just a two hour drive away. So you could get your gambling fix for a few nights, then camp out in Death Valley to try and salvage what little money you have left from throwing it all down on black.
MORE WAYS THAN ONE
When equipped with the right tools, stargazing doesn't have to just be a quick glimpse of the twilight. Even free iPad apps could help guide your eyes for hours to places that are typically hidden among city lights.
"The other thing noticeable when it is dark is the much greater number of faint stars visible. Despite the belief that 'millions and millions' of stars are visible when it's really dark and clear, the fact is that under the best conditions, less than 3000 stars would be visible from just about any location on Earth at any given time. It's still a lot more than we normally see," Beaber told redOrbit.
"The one object that would be visible--but very hard to notice unless you know exactly where to look--would be the Andromeda Galaxy. It is a faint smudge of light off the constellation Andromeda, and is actually a galaxy as big as the Milky Way. It's one of the closer galaxies to us at 'only' 1.5 million light years away, and is one of the objects I look for in the fall when I'm outside at night away from city lights," Beaber explained.
If you are a bit cash strapped to visit places like Hawaii, then make a splash in your own hometown to try and cut down on light pollution. Something as simple as placing a cover on lights around the neighborhood may brighten up the view of the night sky a bit from your own backyard.
"One of the biggest problems with light pollution is that it is so unnecessary. Cheap covers over lights would prevent a lot of light going up into the sky at night, and actually help with security by reflecting more of the light source down to the ground where the concerns are. The problem is that many lights scatter light in all directions, including upwards, leading to problems with light pollution," Beaber told redOrbit.