It’s now the dark of the Moon – and the warmest fortnight of summer, climatologically. Our typical nighttime low is now 60 degrees, making for comfortable stargazing. But where do you find the best skies?
If we limit ourselves to a one-hour drive, then heading north and west is a good bet. The sky is pretty darn fine if you take Route 28 a few miles past Margaretville, and stop at a pull-off along the Pepacton Reservoir. If you travel east, then eastern Columbia or Dutchess Counties, say around Lake Taconic or north of Millerton, or Berkshire hilltops east of Great Barrington are outstanding.
Very low humidity and higher elevations bring out even more stars. Last month in Arizona, the sky was amazing – but you had to be more than 50 miles from population centers, or all bets were off.
My favorite skies in the world are in Chile. And I’m not alone: Many of the world’s greatest observatories have moved there. The Andes Mountains and the Atacama Desert are in a league by themselves. That’s why each year our tour company (Bermanastronomytours.com) rents a Chilean mountaintop equipped with giant telescopes, and we blow the minds of a few dozen people while also exploring that little-traveled part of the world. I hope that some of you join me there this October.
Last year, two of our guests told us that not even the South Pole was as dark and starry. In such conditions, the Milky Way brilliantly casts your shadow on the ground. The combination of being hundreds of miles from any large city and standing thousands of feet up in dry air produces a firmament that is actually better than what astronauts see from outer space.
I’ve witnessed equally beautiful skies in only a few other places. Parts of the Sonoran Desert around Organ Pipe National Monument near the Mexican border come close. The great Persian Desert in southeastern Iran, near Kerman, is a competitor, too; the Sahara, if you get deep into it, like to the White Desert. And if you get far enough into the Himalayas without killing yourself – although it’s not always clear there.
If you know a little astronomy, the tests for a truly dark sky include seeing a half-dozen faint stars within the Big Dipper’s bowl, observing Orion’s belt embedded within a rich unnamed star cluster, observing the galaxy M33 with the naked eye and, in the Southern Hemisphere, having our companion galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, pop out at you with true brilliance. Telescopically, great skies reveal such astounding detail in galaxies and nebulae that they produce involuntary gasps among even first-time viewers.
Sadly, half the world now lives in cities. Throw in the suburbs that surround them, and it’s obvious that light pollution totally hides the splendor of the night sky for the vast majority. Urbanites who vacation “in the country” are still often on the edge of large towns, or they gaze up when the Moon is bright.
Transported to the right place on the right night is an awesome, eye-opening experience. It immediately reveals why many primitive cultures like the Maya regarded the Milky Way as the centerpiece of life itself. It takes one to a mindset where beauty is dominant and knowledge is almost superfluous, as when you’re on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Around here, especially this week, you don’t have to go very far.
Want to know more? To read Bob Berman’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.