Canadian astronomy expert and editor of SkyNews magazine Terence Dickinson shares his stargazing secrets.
What are your favourite places to stargaze?
One of my favourite places is the Outback of Australia, which is very sparsely populated. Numerous times I have just pulled off the road and put a blanket down and looked. It can be as good as it gets there.
I've gone to the extreme nirvana of astronomy – the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. That is the ultimate. It's 8,000-foot altitude, it's the driest desert in the world, and dry air means less interference for the starlight. You just drop to your knees. The Milky Way is so bright it casts a shadow. It's subtle, but it's there.
Has stargazing changed since you started?
Astronomy is more popular now than ever because it's somewhat exotic – you have to actually go somewhere. The enemy these days, in the last few decades, is the lights of civilization. It can come in many forms. All it takes is one street light or house light and if you're in the vicinity, it's going to ruin your experience.
The second form is the glow from urbanization, from cities. The reflection of lights and the spill from lights, it just goes up. Outdoor lights are, in general, terribly designed. Just look out the window of an airplane and you can see all the individual street lights. You can actually see the bulbs. Why don't they put a shield around them, so the light is all reflected down on the ground?
Fifty years ago, when I started doing this, I could step out of my backyard in suburban Toronto and see the Milky Way and see auroras and the beauty of the night sky was there for everybody. Today, you have to go somewhere. I'd say 85 per cent of the population can't see the stars properly from where they live.
So where should Canadians go?
There are vast relatively unpopulated stretches of Canada – almost anywhere in Saskatchewan, once you get away from the farms, it's big sky country. That's probably the easiest place to find stargazing country.
Across Canada, the spots I like are provincial and national parks. The people that operate them care about nature and are interested in people having an experience with nature. Jasper, for example, is now the world's largest recognized dark sky park. There are parts of Jasper that are well lit, but there are many, many parts that are spectacularly dark, and the people who run the park are now attempting to keep it that way.
In Ontario, Charleston Lake Provincial Park near Gananoque. They've cut scrub bush out of an area which is now beautifully grassed (they mow the grass) and it's the stargazing alcove. Other parks are being encouraged to do this. They keep it so there's no light at all. People can just drive in with their telescopes and then drive out, and it's just a day pass to get in. It's one of the most southerly places in Canada where you can get a really nice dark sky experience.
And after all, the night sky is nature on its grandest scale, and can be inspiring. The possibilities for inspiration are becoming less and less as time goes on, as nature is pushed back farther into the hinterland.
What advice do you have for beginners?
Check your timing – you don't want to go anywhere between the first quarter and last quarter moon. That's because the moon is nice to look at, but it blocks the light of the stars. If you really want a stargazing experience, you want to go after the last quarter through new moon to a couple of days before first quarter.
Also, solar activity is starting to ramp up and the Northern Lights and the aurora is going to get better. The odds are it's going to get better through 2013. And for that, your best way of seeing the Northern Lights is to get a dog and walk it religiously the last thing you do at night. Even if you live in the city.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
For weekly updates on what's going on in the night sky, articles for amateur astronomers and upcoming coverage on dark sky parks. Check the extensive list of clubs across Canada (under Resources) to find a contact to inquire about guided tours in destinations you plan to visit.
For predictions on satellites and iridium flares. (You know the experience of seeing a star appear out of nowhere, only to have it disappear a few seconds later? Dickinson explains that's an iridium flare – the reflection off panels on communications satellites).
For an astronomy picture of the day. This site is run by two U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronomers, updated daily, and has an archive of thousands of pictures.