Take advantage of the COVID-19 staycation days to do some Dark Sky Park stargazing.
Ever since COVID-19 hit, it seems like things are changing by the minute—even in the astronomical world where generally things can be pretty predictable. For example, in the northern hemisphere summertime offers prime viewing of the Milky Way and the Perseids meteor showers become visible. But this spring, the surprise comet NEOWISE sprang onto the scene, quickly become an Instagram star. “NEOWISE turned into a big deal because it was the first noticeable naked-eye comet since Hale Bopp in 1977. Comets are only usually observed when they get close to the sun and start warming up and develop a glow and a tail,” says Roy Alexander, astronomer, and director of learning at Battlesteads Dark Sky Observatory in England.
With the COVID-19 isolating-in-place restrictions, people everywhere have had fewer distractions, with the result that more people are turning to astronomy for the first time. “One of the positives to come out of lockdown, is the motivation it gave people to discover that naked eye or binocular astronomy was available to them and that phone app stores are full of free or cheap apps to guide and help them,” says Alexander.
Over the next couple of months, the night skies continue to look exciting. “In the Northern hemisphere, the big thing is that the nights become astronomically dark again, which means plenty of opportunities to spot the Milky Way and the aurora borealis,” Alexander notes. This winter is the first of a new solar cycle, set to peak in about 2025, so from here on, the auroral activity is going to go up.
Dark sky parks and preserves, certified by the International Dark Sky Association (there are 130 in the world), promote astronomy and help fight against increasing light pollution. Light pollution doesn’t just affect our star-viewing but also affects the Earth’s daily light-dark rhythm, which has negative implications for plant and animal ecosystems, human health, and bio-rhythms, in addition to contributing to climate change. So break out your binoculars, and prepare for some stellar night-sky viewing at these amazing North American Dark Sky Parks.
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The Grand Canyon
Arizona is home to 16 designated parks, reserves, and communities, which should be no surprise when you learn that the state has clear skies almost every night of the year. The Grand Canyon, certified in 2019, is the most recent Dark Sky Park. Generally, the park has star party events with access to telescopes, and this year with COVID-19 restrictions, events are being held virtually.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
The village of Borrego Springs, California, within the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California, has been a certified Dark Sky Community (achieved by installing light fixtures which create less light pollution) since 2009, and the park received recognition in 2019. This desert oasis of darkness offers night sky interpretive programming, monthly stargazing, and moon-watching programs. Borrego Night Sky Tours also offers programming and The Springs at Borrego, an RV resort in the park, has a small observatory that holds public viewings and lectures.
Headlands International Dark Sky Park
Along with stellar star-gazing, this 550-acre county park in northern Michigan has views of the aurora borealis many nights of the year. This summer, Headlands has been experiencing significant crowds on clear evenings and the number of vehicles allowed into the park is limited, so you will want to be sure to get there early to watch the night show.
INSIDER TIPHeadlands has its own Clear Sky Chart astronomers’ forecast page.
Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park
WHERE: Alberta, Canada
This is the first transboundary (Canada-U.S.) Dark Sky Park, straddling the borders of Alberta and Montana. Located in the Rocky Mountains (in the middle of nowhere), it’s easy to see the dark sky from almost anywhere in the park. Dark Sky Guides offer custom tours or twilight walks and night hikes on the backcountry mountain trails. Through COVID-19, tours are focused on naked-eye stargazing and immersive storytelling. They will also be opening a planetarium this fall/winter.
INSIDER TIP“A planetarium allows people the opportunity to explore the cosmos and discover the night sky, without having to rely on the weather or waiting for the sun to set,” says Keith Robinson, owner/operator.
Mayland Earth-to-Sky Park and Bare Dark Sky Observatory
WHERE: North Carolina
As the first IDA-certified Dark Sky Park in the southeast United States, this public observatory with a special roll-off roof was opened in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2017. The park will also be home to a planetarium; a 36-foot projection dome is slated to open soon. Usually, general viewings are scheduled depending on the moon cycle and sunset times, but currently Bare Dark Sky Observatory is closed to the public, due to COVID-19. You can still make a booking for a private group.
INSIDER TIPThis link is a good source for astronomy news.
Cherry Springs State Park
One of the best places on the Eastern Seaboard to see the night skies, Cherry Springs’ latitude/longitude co-ordinates allow one of the best views of the nucleus of the Milky Way galaxy. The astronomy field from the top of this 2,300-foot mountain offers 360-degree views of the night sky. The park offers short-term gazing spots, but to use the overnight Astronomy Observation Field, you’re required to register and pay a user fee before setting up any equipment.
Mont-Megantic National Park
WHERE: Quebec, Canada
Mont-Megantic is the first certified Dark Sky Reserve (promotes an area surrounding a park or observatory that restricts artificial light pollution), certified by the IDA in 2007. Located at the base of a small mountain range near Sherbrooke, Quebec, there are two public observatories and numerous telescopes. The Astrolab has an amazing astronomy film, and programs, like torchlight snowshoe trips along park trails to view the stars are generally offered. During COVID-19, reservations are required and guided tours of the observatory are not available.
Arches Canyon National Park
Utah holds the title for the U.S. state with the most certified Dark Sky designations. Stargazing amongst the other-worldly red rock formations at Arches Canyon National Park is heaven for amateur astronomers and generally offers over 100 astronomy programs per year, on topics like the life cycle of stars and space exploration missions. Arches also hosts an Annual Astronomy Festival, although that was canceled this year, due to COVID.
INSIDER TIPBest time for dark-sky gazing is during the week of the new moon or the week before.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
Part of the Everglades headwater, this expanse of infinite grassland, is Florida’s first Dark Sky Park. At Kissimmee, the park entrance closes 15 minutes after sunset, and only registered campers or pass holders are allowed after dark, so best to plan a camping trip so you can spread out your blanket and lay in awe of the night skies.