Paul Sutter is an astrophysicist at The Ohio State University and the chief scientist at COSI science center. Sutter is also host of "Ask a Spaceman" and "Space Radio," and leads AstroTours around the world. Sutter contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
We are losing the night sky. Year after year, as cities and suburban projects continue to grow, the accumulated light from parking lots, office buildings, homes and streets wash out and overwhelm the comparatively weak light from the stars themselves. Constellations and patterns that were second nature to our ancestors are now almost alien to adults and children in industrialized countries.
Even the great arch of the Milky Way, a dazzling fixture of the night sky visible in many locations throughout the year, is nearly invisible to most people, who aren't even aware of the grandeur right above them. [Stunning Photos of Our Milky Way Galaxy (Gallery)]
Thankfully, there are many community efforts to work with local political and business leaders to preserve the night sky while respecting economic needs. In the meantime, for most of us, seeing a dark sky means packing your bags and heading on an adventure.
So … Where to?
When I co-founded AstroTours last year, I set about finding the best opportunities in the world to connect people with the true night sky. I honestly believe that personal experiences are the most powerful, and by bringing people face-to-face with the expansive and overwhelming beauty of the natural world, we can create a stronger appreciation for science in our communities.
But stargazing, like real estate, is all about location, location, location. There are plenty of deep, rich, dark skies in the world. And if you're willing to travel to, say, the polar ice caps or the middle of the Pacific, you can enjoy nature's splendor to your heart's content. A more challenging but fun puzzle to solve is finding good skywatching locations that are actually reasonably accessible. That means proximity to a major airport, relatively affordable food and lodging, reliability of good sky conditions, and so on.
Deserts are always good stargazing options, given their dry and clear atmospheres and general remoteness. But that same remoteness that provides a precious glimpse of the unpolluted night sky means that facilities such as hotels, restaurants and sometimes even bathrooms can be hard to come by, as the lack of water in those regions precludes development.
Europe and the United States are dotted with major observatories, including centuries-old giant telescopes that were first used to reveal the mysteries of the cosmos. But what might have been a decent dark spot a hundred years ago is now smack-dab in the center of a major urban center. While those classical observatories are easily accessible and offer great opportunities to learn about the history of astronomy, their skies aren't the greatest.
One surprising alternative that we landed on for our next AstroTour is Costa Rica. You may not normally equate "lush tropical jungle" with "brilliant stargazing," but winter and spring in the country are relatively dry, and the nation has long distinguished itself as a premier destination for ecotourism, meaning that industrialization and development are kept far away from pristine wilderness habitats.
The same preservation of the rich biodiversity in the tropical jungles of Costa Rica also make for excellent — even extraordinary — stargazing opportunities. And since the country is near the equator, it provides a unique view of both northern and southern constellations — something that most desert stargazing locales can't beat.
Costa Rica has always been high on my list of AstroTour priorities, and I was thrilled when we finally secured a contract to lead a group of stargazers to this amazing biologically diverse country. Our trip departs in March 2019, and we are accepting reservations on our website and through the form below. I'd love for you to join us for this incredible opportunity!
Editor's note: This commentary is a sponsored post by AstroTours, promoting astronomical tourism for travelers. If you book a trip through the AstroTours form, Space.com may earn money to support our work.
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Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at SUNY Stony Brook and the Flatiron Institute in New York City. Paul received his PhD in Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2011, and spent three years at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, followed by a research fellowship in Trieste, Italy, His research focuses on many diverse topics, from the emptiest regions of the universe to the earliest moments of the Big Bang to the hunt for the first stars. As an "Agent to the Stars," Paul has passionately engaged the public in science outreach for several years. He is the host of the popular "Ask a Spaceman!" podcast, author of "Your Place in the Universe" and "How to Die in Space" and he frequently appears on TV — including on The Weather Channel, for which he serves as Official Space Specialist.