The night sky has become a tourist destination.
But wait a minute. Can’t we see the night sky simply by stepping outside after dark and looking up?
Well, yes. But for most of us, that means seeing the glow from artificial lights reflecting off clouds, water vapor and dust particles in the air. It’s called sky glow; the night sky is so bright that it’s hard to see the stars.
For most of the time people have lived on this planet, the night sky was inky dark and filled with visible celestial objects. It’s inspired poets and dreamers, artists and scientists, linking humankind with its past and perhaps its future, as people looked to the sky to ponder life’s mysteries.
It’s only been in the past 100 years or so that light and air pollution have diminished those views. And it’s only been in recent years that people have started traveling in search of what has been lost, whether it’s seeking out spots in the Midwest or venturing farther afield in the Southern Hemisphere.
“We’re seeing dark-sky tourism as a reaction against our increasingly busy, tech-filled lives,” said Daniel Levine, a travel trends expert and director of the Avant-Guide Institute, a global trends consultancy. “It’s a chance to decompress, be somewhere quiet and be awed by the biggest question in life: Why are we here?”
‘Envoys of beauty’ in Chile
Hoping for a dark-sky experience myself earlier this year, I headed to a mountain plateau west of the Andes in Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth and a mecca for astronomers and stargazers.
I settled in at the small town of San Pedro de Atacama with plans to do some stargazing and to visit the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. Better known as ALMA, it’s billed as the “most complex astronomical observatory ever built on Earth” by the U.S.-based National Radio Astronomy Observatory. In cooperation with the Chilean government, an international partnership from North America, Europe and East Asia built and operates the facility. Scientists from around the world share time on the telescopes for research.
The town is a tourist center with muted lighting and dirt streets lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and tour operators offering desert adventures. It seemed there was a stargazing operator on every block. I worked with Astronomic Tour Licanantay Observatory, a company that mixes astronomy with culture to explore the night sky and how it was interpreted by the ancient Atacameno people. (Another good option is San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations, or SPACE. Except for the days around the full moon, both companies offer nightly tours leaving from San Pedro.)
A late-night, half-hour bus ride took me out of town into the desert. After climbing out of the bus, I stopped in my tracks. It was so dark I couldn’t see the ground. But no one needed to point out the Milky Way: There it was up above, a vast streak composed of billions upon billions of stars packed so close together, it seemed as though one blended into another.
These “envoys of beauty” (Ralph Waldo Emerson) and “jewels of the night” (Henry David Thoreau) that made Vincent van Gogh paint masterpieces were on display for me in a place where the ancient Atacamenos were long-ago astronomers.
About a dozen people on our tour spent the next hour sitting on wooden benches lining a raised platform while a guide pointed out the stars, constellations and planets. He talked about the people who lived here long ago, when there were so many stars twinkling in the skies that people named the dark spaces in between them, similar to the way we name constellations. We had a telescope at our disposal for magnified viewing, but I preferred just looking up and listening to him talk. Before it was over, each of us posed for a photo with the Milky Way as a backdrop, providing a nice souvenir.
The next morning, I got a tour that was decidedly more scientific at ALMA’s Operations Support Facility, an engineering marvel open to the public Saturday and Sunday mornings. Admission is free, but it’s best to make a reservation well in advance at almaobservatory.org. Click on “Outreach” and “Visits.”
Perched 6,000 feet above the operations facility, the radio telescopes aren’t within view of the public, but people can see the data pouring into computers monitored by scientists. The facility has an extensive education program that can keep visitors entertained for hours.
Astro tourism in the Midwest
Because most of us don’t have access to clear skies like those in the Atacama, destinations offering dark-sky experiences have become tourist attractions. It’s part of a larger trend of so-called astro tourism, according to Levine, the travel trends expert.
“We are living in a new age of space awareness,” he said. “People are looking to the skies as never before.”
Witness the crowds who traveled to see the solar eclipse in 2017, and others taking trips to experience the Northern Lights.
Even before astro tourism took off, the International Dark-Sky Association had raised the alarm that the visible night sky is a vanishing natural wonder.
Formed 30 years ago, the association has designated more than 100 locales around the world as dark-sky places, ranging from light pollution-minded suburbs such as the Chicago suburb of Homer Glen and the small Indiana town of Beverly Shores, where shields on street lighting keep the illumination focused downward, to dark sky parks in the Southwest U.S. and much larger reserves or sanctuaries in places such as Namibia and New Zealand. Utah has the world’s highest concentration of IDSA-certified parks, some of which offer regular stargazing events.
In northern Michigan, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City gained IDSA certification in 2011. The park includes more than 500 acres of woodlands along two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, as well as an events center and a guesthouse that can sleep 22 people. With miles of hiking trails and kid-friendly outdoor sky exhibits, it’s a great place to visit during the day. But at night, it’s for relaxing and pondering the cosmos.
The first night I was at Headlands, clouds obscured the scene, and the bugs at sunset were intense.
On our second night, the sky came alive, slowly. The first stars to show up were actually planets, Venus and Jupiter, before sunset. A midsummer night with no moon was perfect for stargazing, but the full sunset was a long time coming.
While daylight lingered, a park astronomer guided visitors to a telescope set up on a patio along the lakeshore. As the skies darkened, most folks preferred to just look up and watch as more and more stars surfaced and the pink-tinted, blue-gray sky slowly turned black.
The star show at Headlands wasn’t a match for the ideally dry skies of Chile, but for most city residents, it’s an extravaganza well worth the trip.
Not many of the official dark-sky places are close to large metropolitan areas, for obvious reasons. That’s what makes the Beverly Shores community designation special; it’s within reach of millions of people.
On the banks of Lake Michigan, across the water from Chicago, Beverly Shores is surrounded by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Just outside of town, in the parking lot for Kemil Beach, amateur astronomers share their telescopes at monthly stargazing events.
“When I was a kid, you could drive out of the city and into the darkness, but these little islands of darkness are disappearing,” said Larry Silvestri, who helps run the stargazing at Kemil Beach. “But here, 10 million people in this region can come and see the Milky Way.”