Sometimes the most jaw-dropping things you see on your travels aren't even on this planet. Celebrate International Astronomy Day by exploring the stars. Here's how...
In the words of Douglas Adams: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” A quick glance up at the night sky can leave us both completely wowed and reeling at the enormity of the universe – and we’re not even seeing the half of it.
“The majority of us live in urban areas where even on a clear night we would only be able to see a handful of stars,” says Clare O’Connor from Europe’s first Dark Sky Reserve – Exmoor National Park. “But heading to a dark sky can reveal hundreds of thousands of stars, with the Milky Way visible to the naked eye.”
Travelling then can take us to some of the best places to not only see the stars clearly, but also witness some other celestial phenomena, from meteor showers to solar or lunar eclipses and, of course, the aurora borealis. But how do you decide where to go?
Dark Sky Places can be found worldwide – visit the IDA’s website to find your nearest one. Staunton River State Park in Virginia, certified in July 2015, is one of the IDA’s newest stargazing spots. It holds a Star Party every spring and autumn, which sees astronomers gather for several nights of talks and sky-scanning.
There are plenty more great locations. The Australian Outback is ideal – there is little light pollution, and you can combine stargazing with a visit to Uluru. Or head to an African wilderness such as South Africa’s Kruger National Park to spot stars and the Big Five.
The UK has some superb skies too. The Brecon Beacons Dark Sky Reserve, the Sark Dark Sky Community (the world’s only dark sky island) and Northumberland Dark Sky Park (one of the best places in England to see the northern lights) are all good choices. “If you can’t access a Dark Sky area, you can stargaze from your back garden or nearby countryside away from the bright city lights,” says Affelia Wibisono, an astronomer from the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
More information: 13 of the best stargazing sites in Europe, America & Canada
In a word, no. “Everyone can get involved as everyone has access to the sky, it really is a case of just looking up,” says Affelia. A planisphere star chart with rotating discs or a smartphone app that mirrors the sky will help you identify which stars are visible at any given time, though, and a pair of binoculars will help you see constellations or planets closer up.
Storm Dunlop, co-author of Guide to the Night Sky, recommends not rushing out and buying a telescope until you’re more experienced. He also advises patience: “Don’t expect too much, too soon. You need to allow time for your eyes to adapt to the dark in order to see the faintest stars. This could take about 20 minutes.”
Use a red light when looking at your star chart, or switch on your app’s night visibility mode (something found on most headtorches – also a handy tool), to maintain your adjusted night vision. If you don’t have a red light, a see-through red sweet wrapper will do as a makeshift filter for a torch.
Daytime stargazing is also increasing in popularity. Ensure you’re wearing solar viewing glasses or have a solar filter on your binoculars if you’re thinking of doing this.
More information: 7 useful star-gazing accessories
Wherever you find yourself it’s always worth remembering to look up. “The sky looks different in different parts of the world,” says Affelia. “You would not be able to see all 88 constellations from the northern hemisphere. To complete the set you need to head over to the southern hemisphere.”
So, next time you’re on safari or camping out in the desert, remember to glance skywards. As Clare says: “Get out there and enjoy it – it’s the best free show on earth!”
More information: How to take amazing photos of stars