Sites of celestial interest
There are hundreds of astro tourism destinations around the world. Here are the best known
Both Australia and New Zealand need no introduction as alluring holiday destinations with their beautiful coastlines and spectacular scenery. But for we astronomers they’re also the perfect places from which to explore the magnificent southern hemisphere sky. Indeed, the most sparsely populated regions in both countries – such as the Australian Outback and the remote mountainous areas of New Zealand – are among the best locations in the world to stargaze, full stop.
The Arctic landscapes of northern Finland, Norway and Sweden are stunning to behold, but it’s the possibility of catching sight of the ethereal Northern Lights dancing across the skies that draws many UK astronomers to this beautiful region in winter. For example, there are frequent flights from London to Tromsø in northern Norway, and from there you can book guided night excursions away from the city in search of the aurora (which, sadly, can never be guaranteed to appear).
The southwestern US states of Arizona and New Mexico, along with California on the west coast, boast some breathtaking sights and scenery, from the majestic Grand Canyon to iconic locations, such as Yosemite National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. But these states are also where you’ll find famously dark night skies too. In fact, the region includes a high density of International Dark Sky Places recognised by the International Dark-Sky Association.
There are few places that spark the imagination and excitement of astronomers and a strop ho tog rap hers around the world more than Namibia in southwest Africa. Just look at the pictures taken by astro imagers there and you’ll immediately understand why; not only does its location provide a perfect view of the southern night sky, but the country also possesses extraordinarily dark night skies, especially at sites near the beautiful Namib Desert. Sitting off the coast of northwest Africa, the spectacular volcanic islands of La Palma and Tenerife are synonymous in European astronomy circles with pristine dark skies. Both islands are home to professional observatories – the William Herschel Telescope, the Isaac Newton Telescope and the enormous Gran Telescopio Canarias being just a few of the world-famous research facilities that are sited on La Palma – that are occasionally open for daytime visits. (See page 72 for more.)
Chile, in South America, is another popular destination famous with astronomers for its clear, dark night skies. Many of the world’s most powerful research telescopes are sited in remote regions of the country, including ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) array, which sits atop a mountain at the Paranal Observatory, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is located in the Atacama Desert, far up in the north of Chile, close to the border with Bolivia.
With azure waters lapping its beaches, abundant sunshine, stunning architecture, delicious cuisine and curious alcoholic beverages, Greece offers some of the most enticing places to holiday in all of Europe. If you can get away from the lights of the towns and cities, the country – and especially some of the Greek islands – can also be a great place to stargaze. The island of Crete, for example, is home to a professional observatory that occasionally runs public open days.
Being only a few hours away by air, Iceland, in the North Atlantic, is a favourite destination for UK and European stargazers hoping for a sighting of the Northern Lights. Iceland sits in the region known as the ‘auroral zone’, where displays of aurora can frequently be seen, which improves your odds of witnessing a display. If the skies are cloudy when you’re there you’ll still be able to enjoy exploring the island’s spectacular volcanic landscape, enormous glaciers and towering waterfalls.