The night sky isn't what it used to be. The U.S. alone spends $11 billion each year on unnecessary outdoor lighting and in many regions throughout the world stars and other heavenly phenomena have faded from view. A growing awareness, however, of this "light pollution" has led groups, such as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), to fight to preserve natural skies.
"A dark sky experience goes hand-in-hand with the sense of 'getting away from it all'" says Dr. John Barentine, who manages IDA's International Dark Sky Places program. "It means getting as far away from cities as possible." The program accredits places worldwide as International Dark Sky Reserves or Parks, based on their night sky viewing quality along with local efforts to maintain pristineness. National parks offer a good compromise, as they "have built-in tourism infrastructures that also make them readily accessible," says Barentine.
When stargazing, bring water, blankets, chairs, and a just-in-case flashlight, but don't lug a telescope into the wilderness. "Eyes alone are sufficient to sample much of the phenomena revealed by dark skies: the Milky Way, shooting stars, faint satellites crisscrossing the skies," he says. Here, then, are some of the best places in the world for looking up at night.
Atacama Desert, Chile
Virtually cloudless, and with an altitude of 8,200 feet and many areas receiving less than an inch of rain annually, this barren, northern Chilean desert is simply one of the highest, driest regions on the planet. (Humidity amplifies horizon lighting and makes celestial objects look blurry.) The optimally clear skies have attracted big bucks from astronomical agencies worldwide; two of the three next-generation, monster ground telescopes are slated to begin operations here in the 2020s. In the meantime, visitors are welcome to camp out under the piercingly bright stars.
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