The best places on earth to see the sky at night
With the Patrick Moore Planetarium in Leicester inspiring a new generation of stargazers, Aaron Miller finds ways to let you get close to the wonders of our cosmos
Wednesday 25 January 2012
What's the attraction?
Tomorrow the Space Theatre at Leicester's National Space Centre is renaming the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium in honour of the pioneering TV astronomer. And with Stargazing Live whetting astronomical appetites, you may be ready for the next giant step. A stargazing holiday puts you in prime locations to see the most impressive displays in the universe. This year alone, there's a once-in-a-lifetime transit of Venus across the sun. Your holiday might even lead to a discovery: last week two amateur astronomers discovered a new planet after watching Stargazing Live. Next time, it could be you.
Rain of stars
The Perseids meteor shower is one of the best annual displays of shooting stars in the world, often with more than 50 meteors per hour. A new trip takes you to the Wadi Rum desert, aka the Valley of the Moon, in Jordan for the peak of the activity in August. Explore archaeological sites by day, and dine under clear desert skies, gazing up at this celestial spectacle at night. On The Go Tours (020-7371 1113; onthegotours.com) has an eight-day trip departing 11 August for £779 per person. It includes accommodation (with two nights in a desert camp), transport, activities, some meals and a local guide; flights extra.
Walking on the moon
The first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong, referred to Mount Teide National Park in Tenerife as the closest thing to the lunar landscape he'd ever seen. It's also one of the best places in Europe for stargazing. Wait for a new moon and cast your eyes upwards – no equipment needed. The only accommodation in the park is the Parador de las Cañadas del Teide (00 34 922 374 841; bit.ly/tenerifeparadores, with doubles from €110. Teide Astro (00 34 922 373 773; teideastro.com) provides free stargazing tours every Friday night for hotel guests.
Take the kids
Stargazing breaks for children entertain them by day and educate and enthrall by night. The "Turkey Adventure and Astronomy" trip features a walk, bike and horse-riding adventure through Cappadocia, with nightly live planetarium shows. The eight-day itinerary run by Explorers Astronomy Tours (0845 508 6651; astronomytours.co.uk) costs £1,429 per person, with Turkish Airlines flights from Gatwick to Kayseri via Istanbul, transport, accommodation, meals and tuition from astronomer Dr John Mason. Departures on 21 July and 7 August. Aged 12 and up.
A total solar eclipse is an awe-inspiring, rare cosmic event that happen every 18 months or so (although viewing them is tricky). Catch one this year on the beaches of Queensland, Australia on 13-14 November, or you'll have to wait until 2015 – and travel to the Arctic Ocean – to see the next. Bridge & Wickers (020-7483 6555; bridgeandwickers. co.uk) offers a 10-night package for £2,555, departing on 8 November with Qantas from Heathrow to Cairns via Singapore and Sydney, five nights' B&B at the Peninsula Boutique Hotel in Port Douglas and five nights' room only at the Angsana Resort beside the Great Barrier Reef.
If you fancy a look around some of the world's biggest telescopes then you could do worse than visiting the high mountains of Arizona and California. Explorers Astronomy Tours (0845 508 6651; astronomytours.co.uk) offers a trip that combines visits to four observatories – including the Lowell telescope – with time at the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff Meteor Crater and the site of an annular eclipse. The 18-day trip costs £2,709 per person including Virgin Atlantic flights from Heathrow to Las Vegas, transport, accommodation, breakfast and tuition. Departs 17 May.
Now or never
The transit of Venus across the sun has only been seen seven times since the invention of the telescope in 1608. On 5 June, those in the know are heading to the Big Island of Hawaii – one of the few places on earth where the full transit, a dark disc crossing the sun, will be visible. MWT Associates Inc (001 408 279 5589; melita trips.com) offers a five-day package for US$2,195 (£1,463), which is organised and led by the experts at Astronomy magazine. The tour starts in Hawaii and includes accommodation, lectures, and a visit to the Keck Observatory, but not flights.
Dark sky destinations
Dark skies are a prerequisite for stargazing. Last month, Jasper National Park in Canada was designated a Dark Sky Preserve (jasperdarksky.org); Canadian Affair (020-7616 9184; canadianaffair.com) offers packages from the UK. Galloway Forest Park in Scotland has been designated a "Dark Sky Park", and wild camping is allowed (01671 402 420; www.gallowayforestpark.com). The Atacama Desert in Chile is dark enough for some of the largest telescopes in the world. The Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa (00 56 2 957 0303; altoatacama.com) has doubles from US$491 (£327) per person.
Who said that?
I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.
Vincent Van Gogh
If you take a 5p coin and hold it 75ft away, the space in the sky it would obscure would hold 10,000 galaxies. It's mind-blowing.
Professor Brian Cox
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
The location is as important as what you'll experience at night. Take appropriate clothing – even in the tropics it gets chilly at night. Take a camera that can handle long exposures. It makes a huge difference to have an expert there who can give you background information and a few tips. Dr John Mason, "galactic ranger" for Explorers Astronomy Tours.
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