Last year marked the International Year of Astronomy which encouraged everyone including the non astronomers who had an interest in the workings of the vast cosmos to rediscover and get to know better the wonders floating about in the deep night sky. This year, we figure it isn’t too late for those who didn’t get the chance last year to go stargazing and see some heavenly bodies up close. After all, the sky will always be up there and it doesn’t seem like the stars are going anywhere. We also think that catching up on some stargazing and refreshing our memories on the constellations is the perfect excuse to pack our bags and travel somewhere fun.
For die hard Galileo fans and kids hoping to be astrophysicists someday, here are some places you might like to visit the next time you go on vacation.
If you look at the United States at night from above the sky, the numerous city lights will actually enable you to see a clear outline of the country. That may be cool at first, but it actually makes it harder for astronomers and even regular people like you and me to get a good view of the stars above. The glare from the ground makes it harder to see distant stars. If you happen to be in the U.S. and you’re looking for a good place to go stargazing, we suggest traveling to a place where there’s not too many people or city lights.
The ideal setting of the Sonoran Desert is probably the reason behind the construction of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in that area. Every day, the observatory is open to the public where they can sign up for guided tours or the Nightly Observing Program. The observatory houses the largest collection of optical telescopes in the whole world, so don’t worry if you’re worried that the long trip might not be worth your while.
If you’re planning to go visit South America for the holidays, we suggest flying to Chile and going stargazing at the Atacama Desert. Because this large space is mostly empty except for some rocks and small desert animals, there is no glare coming from buildings and billboards (also known now as light pollution) that messes with your view of the night sky. The dry air also guarantees you a view of the stars minus those pesky clouds that can get in the way. The desert occupies an area less than a hundred miles wide, but stretches for as long as 600 miles. Granted, this is destination can be hard to reach, but one thing is for sure, clear skies will await the determined travelers who make the journey here.
Parents can bring their kids to Chile’s Observatorio Cerro Mamalluca which offer tours for the visiting public. The observatory is located a little less than 10 kilometers away from Vicuña. There is a 12 inch telescope in the facility that is used every night specifically for viewings.
Still in Chile, the Hotel Elqui Domos is also an ideal destination if you want to spend a romantic night under a blanket of stars. The hotel has seven domes featuring bedrooms with a detachable roof so you can spend hours and hours lying in bed at night watching the stars and naming as many constellations as you can before you fall asleep. If you used to spend your nights in the backyard as a kid armed with a flashlight and a blanket, then you will definitely enjoy your stay at this hotel. You can also step out on your own private terrace and inhale the crisp fresh air as you look up at the sky.
If you want a clear view of the vast expanse of the sky, the shores of Hawaii offer an ideal place for stargazing mainly because of its relatively sparse fixtures and structures that emit light compared to other American states. It also helps that this place is smack in the middle of the wide and empty Pacific Ocean.
At the Big Island, the Mauna Kea volcano is the perfect place to view the sky because of its high altitude. There are no nearby mountain ranges to obstruct the view which is why we’re lucky that the Keck Observatory is built right at the summit of this volcano, 9,000 feet above the sea level. This facility is home to the world’s largest infrared telescope as well as the largest optical telescope. These instruments that help us get a better shot of the stars above are quite big; they each stand about eight stories high and weigh about 300 tons.
In 2018, the Keck Observatory will also be home to the Thirty Meter Telescope, which is said to be the most advanced one in production. An evaluation was made between Chile and Hawaii to check if which locale offers a better setting for stargazing; judges later ruled that the telescope be placed in Hawaii.
A tip to our budget travelers who don’t want to miss out on the fun: there are also stargazing programs held every night at the Onizuka Visitors Center absolutely free.
You can also check out the 4 meter telescope over at the Lowell Observatory located in Arizona. There are guided tours conducted daily and solar viewings held for those who come in during the day. At night, the telescopes are opened permitting visitors to view star clusters and planets.
The New Mexico Skies facility in New Mexico is a great destination for amateur astronomers who want to expand their knowledge about the universe. You can even rent a cabin here and treat the family to a sort of hi-tech camp up in the beautiful Sacramento Mountains. There are six different observatories in the facility providing guests with an awesome view of the heavens.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
If you’re in Los Angeles to go shopping in Rodeo Drive, we suggest driving down to the Griffith Observatory at night; the facility is also open to visitors who might like to check the place out.
EL PASO, TEXAS
Those who make their way to El Paso, Texas can join the Star Party at the McDonald Observatory. At the party, families can make use of the large telescopes to tour distant galaxies, stars and even the moon. A handy tip for travelers: if you visit the observatory during a time when the moon waning, you get a better view of the fainter objects in the sky; but if you visit during a time when the moon is bright, you’re treated to a great view of Earth’s satellite.
Visiting observatories are a lot of fun because they give us a close up view of the different stars and planets. But another way to appreciate the night sky is to visit a dark sky park. The Natural Bridges National Monument located in Utah is probably the best dark sky park to visit in the United States. In the summer, you can take part in astronomy workshops led by park rangers.
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