Feb 26th, 2024

Dark Sky Tourism

Looking to the stars

for National Geographic Traveller

Somewhere in the interplanetary void between Mars and Jupiter, around 111 million miles away, there floats a bruising rocky lump named Vesta. It’s one of the largest bodies in the asteroid belt, with a surface area the size of a small moon and temperatures that drop to minus 200°C. Back down on Earth, it’s 2am, I’m in a warm room on a dark hilltop in Northumberland, and a sliced fragment of Vesta is resting in my palm.

“I love space rocks,” says Ellie MacDonald, one of the science communicators at Kielder Observatory, encouraging me to study the alien visitor under a microscope. “They’re the most tangible form of astronomy.” On the table around us are other long-distance travellers – little chunks of the lunar surface, and even Mars – all of which have arrived here in meteorite form. It represents not so much a collection of high-value rocks as a kind of solar system reunion.

A few minutes later we’re standing outside, where the dead-of-night clouds have rolled back to reveal a shimmering, psychedelic universe of pinprick stars. Directly above us is the unfathomable vastness of the Milky Way, a glowing cosmic highway furled across the night sky. Ellie’s colleague Liam Reid gives the sight some context. “So our sun is one of 300 billion stars,” he says, as my mind does loop-the-loops. “And that’s just in our galaxy alone. There are three trillion other galaxies.”

In more than one way, Kielder Observatory is quite the trip. It sits at the top of a two-mile dirt track on the edge of Kielder itself, which is one of the most remote villages in England. As such, the observatory is not only off-grid – think log-burners, compost toilets and solar-and-wind power – but surrounded by darkness. Proper, where-did-I-drop-that-glove darkness. On the right night in an urban park, you might be able to pick out a few constellations overhead. Here, by contrast, the heavens are absolutely smothered in stellar specks, to the point where what you’re looking at becomes almost more stars than sky. Breathtaking would be the most apt word.

Dark Skies Tourism is no longer a niche sector. In this screen-led age, increasing numbers of us are recognising stargazing as a chance to reconnect to something deep and magical: a travel experience that puts existential awe above Instagram likes. Here in Northumberland – home to the UK’s biggest Dark Sky Park and Europe’s second largest area of protected night sky, an officially designated zone of nearly 580 square miles – ‘astro-tourism’ is estimated to bring some £25m to the county each year. The destination offers expert-run observatories, dedicated events, and even stargazing accommodation packages. And it’s far from alone.

The US-based International Dark-Sky Association has defined sixteen different UK regions (plus the Channel Island of Sark) as prime stargazing locations, among them Bodmin Moor, Snowdonia, the North York Moors and the Scottish island of Coll. Most are either Dark Sky Parks (with exceptional starry nights and a protected nocturnal environment) or Dark Sky Reserves (as above but concentrated on a more compact core zone). On top of this, there are more than 200 smaller Dark Sky Discovery Sites across the country – so if you’re keen to stare agog at our celestial neighbours, you’ve got options. On a clear night, and in the darkest parts of the UK, it can even be possible to pick out Andromeda with the naked eye. That’s the galaxy next door, by the way. It’s 2.5 million light years away.

Dark Skies Tourism can involve anything from sitting outside with a thermos flask to making a formal observatory visit, but it relies on places with a lack of manmade light pollution. This is more of an issue than might be assumed. Back in 2016, an influential report in open-access journal Science Advances found that 80% of the world’s population lives under “skyglow”, while a hefty 99% of people in Europe and the US have their views affected by artificial lighting. When you consider how things would have been just a century earlier, it’s a sobering statistic.

The UK Dark Skies Partnership, which includes all 16 UK Dark Sky Places, not only champions a fuller understanding of the cosmos but acts as a de facto conservation body by promoting things such as low-glare, energy-efficient bulbs, and exterior lighting that directs downwards. “Light pollution has a major impact not just on wildlife and plants but on our own health and wellbeing,” says Duncan Wise of the Northumberland National Park Authority. We’ve met at visitor centre The Sill, close to Hadrian’s Wall, where it’s fun to imagine chilly centurions looking up at the planets 2,000 years ago. “Among other things, so much light can knock out our circadian rhythms. The good news is that light pollution is reversible in a way that air or water pollution isn’t.”

Duncan was one of the team instrumental in helping Northumberland achieve Dark Sky Park status in 2013, and he explains that there’s a refreshing amount of collaboration between destinations. “Galloway Forest Park became the UK’s first Dark Sky Park in 2009, and they really helped us,” he says. “So in turn we’ve helped places like the South Downs and Snowdonia to get their own Dark Sky designations. It’s in everyone’s interest. The sense of wonder that can be had from a starry night is mind-blowing.”

This is true enough, but to truly appreciate what you’re looking at, it pays to be in the company of those in the know. A star cluster becomes more than a star cluster when you’re with someone who lives and breathes astrophysics – and they tend to have powerful telescopes, too. Across the UK and the Channel Islands, there are now close to 100 observatories (although Ayrshire’s excellent Scottish Dark Sky Observatory was sadly gutted by fire in mid-2021). Many of these grant public access through ticketed events.

I attend three of these events on my visit to Northumberland: one at the small but compelling Battlesteads Observatory, and two at the world-class Kielder Observatory, where the evening and late-night sessions can often sell out months in advance. All three events follow a fairly similar pattern, combining telescope tutorials and classroom-style presentations (“Any Flat-Earthers in tonight? Pity. We do get them”) with time outside under the skies. No less significantly, all three events also send my brain spinning away into the great beyond.

At Battlesteads – which sits in the grounds of the award-winning, green-minded hotel of the same name – the evening begins with a through-the-lens view of Saturn, rings and all, and continues by dismantling any misconceptions guests may have about the nature of the night sky. “It’s tempting to think of it all as a uniform starry canopy,” says our guide Chris Duffy, handing out binoculars. “But look at Betelgeuse. The light from that star takes more than 600 years to reach us. If it exploded in a supernova – which may already have happened – we wouldn’t know about it for centuries. Vega, on the other hand, is 25 light years away, and Alpha Centauri is only four light years away. So up there,” he says, gesturing skywards, “there is no real ‘now’.”

The following night at Kielder, the facts keep coming. Four of my favourites: if you hold a grain of sand at arm’s length, the area it covers is large enough to obscure 10,000 distant galaxies from view; there are more than 400 active volcanoes on the Jupiter moon of Io; the middle star of Orion’s belt is around 80,000 light years further away than the two either side; the average shooting star is the size of a pea (no, really). And an astronomical sob-story: when it was named a planet in 1930, poor old Pluto barely had time to do a quarter-orbit of the Sun before being declassified in 2006.

I’m here to coincide with the new moon, which in darkness terms is the best time of the lunar cycle for stargazing. Some astronomers even refer to the Moon as “the devil’s lightbulb” – although it’s worth pointing out that many others find it the most fascinating object in the sky, so don’t feel too hard done by if you’re only able to schedule an observatory visit in the days around the full moon.

But regardless of the date, there remains a big, murky elephant in the Dark Skies Tourism room. Namely, what happens when it’s cloudy? The telescope that can see through a bank of thick cumulus is sadly yet to be invented, which means the sum is a simple one: no clear skies equals no stars. This doesn’t stop events going ahead. “We actually looked at the data,” says Jesse Beaman, another of Kielder’s superb science communicators. “It showed that we’re able to stargaze at 49% of our sessions.”

It’s testament to the observatory’s much-rehearsed cloudy back-up plans that a no-star session still feels like an out-of-this-world experience, thanks to presentations designed to showcase the stupendous. The observatory itself opened in 2008 and was the result of an international architectural competition, with a complex of cosy wooden rooms built from local spruce and larch, and two rotating telescope turrets. Being squirrelled away in a place like this for three hours is an educational thrill, whether the universe shows up or not.

Here and elsewhere, of course, several basic rules apply. No matter if you’re heading to an observatory, a forest clearing or even a field, the best season for stargazing is generally between late autumn and early spring – don’t skimp on the hats, gloves and thermals. And be sure to give your normally light-saturated eyes enough time to adjust to the darkness. Avoid phones, white torchlight and anything else bright, as it can take up to half an hour for the average human vision to adapt properly to the stars.

Back under the glittering span of the Milky Way at 2.30am, with phones safely tucked away, some of the guests are wondering aloud about life on other planets. A meteor streaks in the distance. Ellie tells us about the Arecibo Radio Message, a 1974 interstellar broadcast beamed towards an outlying star cluster in an attempt to contact other species. So, someone asks, did it work? “Well, it won’t reach its target for 25,000 years. And if there’s a response we won’t receive it for another 25,000 years after that. So it’s a bit too early to tell,” she says. “Space is big.”

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