Stargazing Live: The best places to see the stars – from the Isle of Sark to Chile’s Atacama Desert

As Stargazing Live returns to BBC2, astronomer Tom Kerss recommends places at home and abroad

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This week Dara O Briain and Brian Cox will be stargazing again, but this time they’re in Australia: at the world-famous Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, which perches on a remote mountaintop.

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Of course there’s no need to jet off to Australia to enjoy the wonders of the night skies. We asked Tom Kerss, astronomer at Greenwich’s Royal Observatory, where he goes.

His first tip was to find your nearest Dark Sky Park. “There’s an organisation called the International Dark Sky Association that recognises really good places to do stargazing,” he explains. “The first one in the UK was Galloway Forest Park up in Scotland and now there are several including Exmoor, Brecon Beacons, Northumberland.”

If you don’t live near a Dark Sky Park, he suggests checking out the Dark Sky Discovery project. “Its website can show you local spots where you can get a particularly good view of the night sky. Around the country there are hundreds of places that people have self-reported – sometimes in quite urban areas.”

Last but not least, pack your binoculars next time you go on holiday. “Here in the UK, we do get good access to the northern sky but unfortunately we have really bad weather,” says Kerss. “This season in particular has been one of the worst stargazing seasons on record. But if you go abroad, you can avoid that conveyer belt of cloud that tends to sweep over us from the Atlantic.”

Below, Tom Kerss shares his favourite destinations for stargazing…. 


Iceland

“For me, the Northern Lights are the most impressive, awesome event in all of nature. It’s absolutely mind-blowing, especially if a geo-magnetic storm kicks off and you see the greens and pinks flashing in the sky. Even from central Reykjavik, you can see them every night during late winter, early spring and mid-autumn – as long as it’s not overcast. 

“But you also get great access to the stars there because the air is cooler and more stable – so the stars don’t twinkle as much and the viewing conditions are sharper. It’s spectacular to see all the familiar constellations really high up in the sky and all the stars with their brilliant colours visible. And then on the other side of the sky, you have the Northern Lights.”

Sumo Waggle Adventure, Norway; Arild Heitmann, highly commended in Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2015


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Morocco 

“Morocco is very accessible to UK tourists and has a relatively low population density so you can easily get out into very big open areas. There are observatories set up as hotels where guests get access to huge telescopes. The prices are surprisingly low so it can be a really affordable way to get an amazing night sky experience.” 

The Isle of Sark

“The most accessible Dark Sky Park overseas is the Isle of Sark, which is not far from Jersey and a really great place to go stargazing.” The Channel Island became the world’s first “dark sky island” when it was awarded protected status in 2011. 

Namibia 

“Southern Africa is a good idea if you want great access to the sky – the national parks in South Africa, for example. I spent about six weeks in Namibia’s desert about five years ago and it was the darkest sky I’ve ever seen in my life. 

“If you go to the southern hemisphere or close to the equator, you also get access to a much better night sky because the stars are much more interesting. That’s because you can see closer to the centre of the Milky Way, so you get to see a really rich part of the sky that’s unfortunately never actually quite visible from the UK.”

A Tainted Eclipse, Australia; Phil Hart, highly commended in Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2015

Atacama Desert

“If you really want the best skies in the world, the trick is to go where the biggest telescopes are because they’ve been put there for a reason. So head to the Atacama Desert in Chile or Hawaii where some of the world’s largest telescopes are placed on top of the volcanoes.” 

Stargazing Live Australia is on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on BBC2 at 8pm


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