Science Getaways: Dark skies

By Phil Plait | June 21, 2012 10:38 am

I got an email recently from BABloggee Mark Sunderland, pointing out this photo to me. It shows the Toronto skyline with the Milky Way and thousands of stars blazing behind it.

I had to chuckle: the picture is obviously fake (and now the caption at Flickr says as much, though it didn’t when I first saw it). There’s no way you could see the Milky Way from a city like Toronto. The city lights flood the air with illumination, lighting up the sky and drowning out faint stars. A long exposure photo of the sky over Toronto would make it worse; the sky would be washed out, with only a handful of stars visible. This is called light pollution, and it’s a serious problem for astronomers. That’s why we build our telescopes far from civilization centers.

To really see the stars, you have to get away from cities, to a place with few lights to to compete with the sky. That’s a big reason my wife and I chose the C Lazy U Ranch for our premier Science Getaways vacation. This is a dude ranch nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where the nearest large town is Estes Park, 50 km to the northwest, and even that’s blocked by the mountains. The skies there are dark.

Science Getaways is a company my wife and I started to add science to otherwise non-sciencey vacations. For this first one we have a geologist, biologist, and me at the dude ranch. Every day there will be science talks followed by short and long field trips (to accommodate different physical abilities) where we’ll check out the local nature, and at night there will be stargazing sessions. I’m really exited about that last bit (duh). It’s been a while since I’ve used a ‘scope under really clear, dark skies — I have an 8" Celestron and just seeing Saturn (which we’ll do [NOTE ADDED JULY 21 – actually, by this time Saturn may be to low in the west to see – it’ll be behind the mountains. There might be a location on the ranch where we can get a shot at it, though.]) is cool enough… but unlike that composite Toronto picture, the Milky Way over the mountains will be quite real, and quite spectacular. We’ll be looking at nebulae, clusters, and other objects, too, and there will be plenty visible just to the unaided eye. I’ll have binoculars people can use as well, which to be honest is one of my favorite ways to soak up dark skies. It’s amazing what you can see with a decent pair of binocs.

This Getaway is from September 16 – 20, 2012 — just three months from now. We have about 20 spots left open, so if you’re on the fence about this, now’s the time to decide. The skies are calling.

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Comments (16)

  1. Joel

    I would love a list of dark sky locations to visit this summer for a vacation.

  2. James

    I went to Barstow a few weeks back (known dark sky place) but the Moon was out in full force, didn’t see a thing. :(

  3. James Cappio
  4. Carey

    “quite real, and quite spectacular”

    I see what you did there.

  5. Matt B.

    “There’s no way you could see the Milky Way from a city like Toronto.”

    Yeah, I can’t see it from a suburb of Denver. In fact, I can’t tell my favorite constellation, Corvus, exists, and I’m even having trouble seeing Leo.

    Since it was mentioned, Saturn’s near Spica right now, isn’t it?

    @4 Carey – You could have done better with a misquote: “the mountains will be quite real, and quite spectacular” :) (Teri Hatcher has been immortalized.)

  6. dredpiratebunny

    this is a wonderful idea and i truly hope it catches on. this year my september is already full, but would love to go to the next one!

    science is awesome!

  7. VinceRN

    @1 Joel – Remote areas of Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. Once you get romote look for altitude. I was in Nevada last year, saw incredible skies in Great Basin National Park, and on Highway 140 heading toward Oregon. The areas around Moab, Utah are incredible for their sky and for their ground too.

  8. Joel

    Thanks, any specific sites at Moab? I have stayed there twice for the parks (which are amazing), but did not take my telescope then.

  9. Gus Snarp

    Science getaways sound so much fun, but my kids are still a bit too young, and it’s pricey (not unfair mind you, just more than I can spend right now). Hopefully you’ll still be doing this and it will still be awesome when my kids are a bit older. I’ll save up.

  10. @8 Joel – I guess my favorite place around there is Dead Horse, but really anywhere you can get away from the lights of town is great.

  11. Jesso

    I would LOVE to do a science getaway, but I can’t make it this year. Will there be one next year?

    (First it was money that was the problem- then I got a better-paying job, but now I don’t have vacation time until I’ve been here a year :P)

  12. Dan M

    I LIKE the idea of a science-themed getaway vacation. I’m very interested to know if you get enough people willing and interested to participate to make it worthwhile (whatever ‘worthwhile’ means in this context). And I particularly approve of the fact that you’ll include experts in a diversity of fields, not just in your favorite one. May I suggest a laser/condensed matter physicist for the next excursion (humbly raising my hand to volunteer…) Granted that astronomy is the branch of physics which is most accessible to the general public (or, anyway, among the top few), there are those of us in the rest of the physics community who would be happy to shamelessly piggy-back on your success in inspiring and communicating the wonder of it all. That laser pointer you use to pick out certain objects in the sky, or that CCD camera you use to take those gorgeous photos, for example – think the audience would appreciate knowing how all that works?

    Actually, I’m serious. I think it would be great fun to join in.

  13. Dan M

    p.s. I have a friend who is a planetarium director, and who also happens to own a piece of land for his own private three-story observatory which is situated at 8800 ft elevation on top of a plateau in southwestern Utah, miles and miles from any major light source… not to gloat or anything but yea I’m gloating… The seeing is pretty incredible.

  14. Mike

    I was lucky enough to get to an area you showed on your blog, central Vancouver Island. (shot from the space station) My brother helped me get to the top of the mountain and we camped for three days.

    In the night I got up and watched the milky way overhead. The skies were very dark and clear of city light.

    Its the most beautiful, awe inspiring thing I’ve ever seen.

  15. Eric

    I wonder how possible a shot like that of Toronto could be made possible with some HDR-fu skills.

  16. Jordan

    Toronto is a very large city (6M+ in the metropolitan area, about a fifth of the whole population of Canada.) We generally only see the very brightest stars. You’ve got to drive a couple hours out (either east or northwest) before the “seeing” gets good.


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