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Dreaming of outer space? Here are 8 tips for enjoying the night sky from Earth

July 20, 2022
7 min read
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NASA's photos from the Webb Telescope have excited science buffs and amateur astronomers around the world. The amazing images of faraway galaxies, nebulae and planets are a cause for celebration — and inspiration.

Of course, it's hard (but not impossible) to travel into space for unobstructed views of the cosmos, and most people don't have an extra $10 billion to construct their own mega-telescope. You might even conclude your own stargazing options are limited — particularly if you live near a big city and its associated light pollution.

But we have great news for you: There has been an emergence of certified "Dark Sky" destinations both in the U.S. and around the world. This provides travelers and aspiring astronomers a chance to get excellent views of the night sky from right here on earth.

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Here's what you need to know about Dark Sky destinations and how you can embark on a stargazing expedition of your own with views into deep space.

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A Webb Telescope image of galaxies in deep space. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

There are many places on earth that provide good settings for stargazing, and they're not as remote as you might think. Here are some suggestions:

Travel to a Dark Sky Park

The best way for regular folks here on Earth to view stars is to visit an official "Dark Sky Park."

These destinations, certified by the International Dark Sky Association, are areas "possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment."

The 114 Dark Sky Parks around the world not only have natural features to enhance views of the night sky, such as high elevation and low humidity, but also are protected against human sources of star-obscuring distractions, like air pollution and artificial lighting.

You don't have to travel to remote locations like a Chilean mountaintop or the Australian Outback to enjoy these spots, though you could. Many places in Europe have also been included in the Dark Sky program.

Plus, the Dark Sky Association has certified more than 60 U.S. destinations as prime spots for stargazing.

See the national parks at night

Specifically, several U.S. national parks are great places to experience night skies away from urban development but still within reach of civilization. Among the places officially certified as Dark Sky locations are Arches, Big Bend, Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Grand Canyon national parks -- and, appropriately enough, the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.

Related: The expansion of dark skies tourism

Drive to a nearby stargazing location

But what if you're stuck in a city with no nearby national park getaway?

Currently, more than 80% of the U.S. population lives in areas where people can’t make out the Milky Way at night even in the best weather conditions, according to a night sky study. This is expected to worsen as developments continue to spread outward from cities.

Fortunately, the Dark Sky Association also promotes and certifies "Urban Night Sky Places." These urban-adjacent parks have noninvasive lighting and offer solid stargazing. Palos Preserves, just outside of Chicago, for example, and Stacy Park near St. Louis, are among these easy-access destinations.

Even within some U.S. cities, you can enjoy great views of the night sky.

Certified "Dark Sky Communities" like Flagstaff, Arizona, and Ketchum, Idaho, are recognized not only for their star-friendly geographic setting but also for their efforts to reduce superfluous light pollution and provide the public with park areas in which to view the night sky.

Related: This new 'Dark Sky' park straddles US and Canadian borders

Photographing the stars in the dark skies of eastern Nevada. (Photo by Bill Fink/The Points Guy)

You don't necessarily need any special equipment or an expert guide to appreciate a nice starry night.

On evenings with good weather in Dark Sky locations, the Milky Way should be visible to the naked eye and is impressive enough to make you glad you made the trip. But some equipment, tours and apps may be helpful in maximizing your stargazing experience.

Join a national park stargazing program

Many U.S. national parks, even those that aren't officially designated as Dark Sky Destinations, have free, ranger-led stargazing programs open to the public. Park rangers can guide you through what you are seeing in the starry night and will often supply telescopes that visitors can take turns using to get a good peep at the stars.

Book a stargazing tour

Some tour companies and cruise ship lines offer stargazing-focused tips, including Backroads, Intrepid and MT Sobek. Select cruise ships, like the Silversea Origin, have specialty stargazing decks for passengers. Hurtigruten offers northern lights-focused winter cruises. Among the specialty astronomy trips are some offering travelers the chance to travel to the ultimate spot to see a solar eclipse.

Pack your own telescope

If you want to get a better view of the stars on your own, you can bring your own telescope. Many photography shops offer rentals of basic models. If you find you enjoy the hobby, you can buy an entry-level telescope and become a regular on the circuit. Celestron, Sky-Watcher and Meade all sell highly rated beginners' telescopes for under $200.

Download a stargazing app

Stargazing apps for your phone are readily available and can provide everything from basic night sky orientation to automated control of telescopes, guiding them with vast databases of stars.

Star Walk 2 is a helpful stargazing app that enables you to point your phone at the sky and have the app tell you which constellations or planets you're looking at, sort of like having a park ranger in your pocket.

Take your own photos

While professional-level star photography requires specially designed rotating tripods and attachments, you can still get decent night sky photos using consumer digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras or even a tripod-mounted phone camera. You'll just need to tinker with the settings to manage shutter speed and exposure levels.

Another important note for aspiring dark skies photographers: Bring gloves. Deserts tend to get very cold at night, particularly at the high elevations typical of many Dark Sky spots. I once ignored the advice of a local photography shop to buy gloves and ended up with fingers so numb I had trouble changing my camera setting.

Night sky photography can also be enhanced by highlighting interesting objects in the foreground. Mountains, trees, campsites or vehicles can add a good perspective to your composition. In the photo above, I used my headlamp to illuminate one of the stone structures of the 19th-century Ward Charcoal Ovens near the dark sky destination of Great Basin National Park.

Bottom line

Regardless of your equipment or astronomy knowledge; whether you're visiting a certified Dark Sky destination or just a peaceful park at night; or if you're on a guided tour or traveling on your own; it's well worth getting out to do some stargazing to appreciate the majesty of the universe above us.

Hopefully, these tips will help you take the inspiration you get from looking at amazing NASA-produced images of outer space and turn it into memorable travel experiences of your own.

Featured image by Webb Telescope image of Carina Nebuls (photo courtesy NASA)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
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