Planning Astronomical Travel

The motivation for developing this page comes in part from discussion with an amateur astronomer who wanted to travel to the Southern Hemisphere, in part to make astronomical observations.  His interest was in finding spots that not only had dark skies, but that had ease of access, (flying there and then driving etc.) AND in seeing interesting areas during the daytime in case the weather was not cooperative for nighttime observing.  He, along with every other amateur astronomer I know, was well aware of the difficulties in “scheduling” cloud-free skies weeks or months in advance.  I am perhaps more familiar than most astronomers with aspects of global climate from my previous research, and we have traveled to the Southern Hemisphere carrying telescopes.  During our trips astronomical observations played a secondary role, since we knew that cloud conditions could not be guaranteed, and we had other primary interests in our travel.

This webpage has the goal of helping amateur astronomers find very good observing sites that also have suitable logistical aspects (getting there and getting around) and also have very interesting natural history aspects (in keeping with this websites focus on natural history for the traveler).  Although some astronomers are heavily focused on technical aspects of astrophotography and celestial observing, our perception is that most amateurs are also interested in other aspects of the natural world.  Hence we don’t think this material will be of just minor interest to amateur astronomers

Motivation for astronomical travel

Why travel to an astronomical destination different from where you live?   Most amateurs live in cities or towns where light pollution is significant, and it is desirable to travel to the countryside where the light pollution is less.  In addition, for many Europeans (or Canadians), who live in latitudes from 45-60˚N, there may be little true nighttime conditions during the months around the summer solstice.  And the period of long nights lies in the winter, when observing outside in the cold can be a real challenge – even if the sky is clear.  Thus, there can be a variety of motivations for astronomical travel.

In the eastern US and most of Europe there are few locations that are very dark (Figs 1-2).  A recent Atlas produced by an international team describes in some detail the lack of dark skies available to large segments of the Earth’s population, especially those in Europe and North America.   Thus, destinations for US amateur astronomers tend to be in the western US, where fewer people live.  Finding a dark night sky is however, only the first step.  Then the question becomes: where can you set up for the night in comfort and safety?

Global sky brightness
Fig. 1  This is a map of the global sky brightness with countries being labeled.  Click for a larger (2560 px) image  This map can be obtained at:

Fig 2.  Sky brightness maps of Europe and North America from the study of Falchi et al 2016.

Note that the option to rent time on telescopes exists and is increasingly popular among astrophotographers.  The reasons can be justified and cost savings calculated (see here for an older link).   I have never followed up on any of these remote options since we observe mostly visually, so I am not an authoritative source for almost any aspect of astrophotography.  Of course, this webpage is mostly irrelevant for such remote observers, since there is no need to travel anywhere.

Requirements for good astronomical observing

Let’s consider the key requirements for good astronomical observing – whether they be with binoculars or large telescopes.  Probably the most important considerations  for astronomical observations are a) moon phase, b) time of the year, c) light pollution, d) site access and e) cloudiness.   These are described briefly below.

a)  The phase of the moon – which produces sky brightness that one cannot escape anywhere on earth, is fortunately very predictable.  Travel can be planned to accommodate the moon phase and dark-sky observations can be adjusted to the moon’s rising and setting times.  I use information from this website for basic sunrise sunset and moon phase and rise times.  There are many other sites.

b)  The time of the year for travel is important because as the sun moves through the Zodiac there will be certain parts of the sky that will be lost in the solar glare.  For example, if you want to see deep sky features in Scorpius or Sagittarius you should not select June or July for your travel – when the sun is in this part of the sky.  This is actually a very important aspect of your travel planning – since the weather and cloudiness at your desired destination may – or may not – be favorable for non-astronomical activities at this time of year.

As astronomers know well, the time of year affects the amount of daylight – or more importantly – the hours of darkness available for observation.  While this difference is small in equatorial regions (and zero on the Equator) for higher latitude locations the amount of darkness can be important.  For example, at a typical location near 30˚S (could be in Chile, Argentina, Australia or South Africa) the darkness available on Dec 21st is about 6h 45 min (using the definition of astronomical twilight) and on June 21st it is near 10h 50 min.  At more poleward latitudes the difference becomes much larger.  A good discussion of twilight and day length is found at this site.

c)  Light pollution from larger cities and towns can be reasonably well predicted from existing maps based on nighttime satellite observations and models that extrapolate such observations (Fig 1).  While the light pollution maps give a good idea of where to search for dark skies, some very local conditions may also be important.  For example, a rest stop along a highway may be in a dark sky location from the light pollution maps, but a particular rest stop might have a few bright lights that you cannot avoid seeing when setting up your telescope.  In this case the rest stop would be unsuitable – despite what the light pollution maps suggest.

The light pollution maps (or Google Earth version (select download option) that I prefer because you can overlay the sky brightness on the underlying geography and roads more easily) do not reflect the cities and towns as closely as you might ordinarily expect.  This is particularly true in Chile and Australia, where large mines or gas fields are an important aspect of the rural landscape.  These mines/gas fields are very large sources of light pollution (see Figs 3-4 below) and can be more important than the neighboring cities (download a kmz file to see where some of the larger mines/gas fields (and related industries) are in Chile, South Africa and Australia to relate them to the light pollution maps.

Fig 3.  The area between Antofagasta and Calama has many mines that produce large amounts of light pollution. Other than Antogfagasta, Calama and Tocopilla, almost all light sources are from mines.
Paranal observatory and light pollution
Fig 4.  This is an oblique view of the light pollution shown in Fig 3, mostly from mines. The Paranal observatory (European) is shown, south of Antofagasta and is in dark skies.

Thus, the usual notion of escaping the cities to get dark skies is not necessarily true in some important areas for astronomical observations.  The otherwise excellent night sky region of the Atacama Desert – inland from Antofagasta – is dominated by open pit mine light pollution (Figs 3-4).  And farther south, the region of La Serena, where many astronomical observatories are located, is affected by mine light pollution.  Only the relatively new observatory of Paranal, south of Antofagasta, remains very dark (Fig 4).  In Australia, a similar situation exists near the east coast, inland from Brisbane, where huge coal mines and gas fields produce widespread light pollution (Fig 5).  Perhaps even larger in spatial scale are the mines far north of Perth in Western Australia, but few people will likely travel to this region.  Finally, in southern Africa (Fig 6) most mines are close to urban areas and their light pollution is not affecting already dark skies.  There are some exceptions however, such as the large mine at Phalaborwa, on the border of Kruger National Park.  (Note:  The article describing the light pollution maps and the techniques notes that the sky brightness is likely overestimated in the vicinity of the gas flares and other mine pollution…  but it is probably better to be aware of these sources of light pollution.)

Fig 5.  Light pollution over Australia, with three large mine-related sources of pollution enclosed by the ellipses. Two are east and north of Brisbane on the eastern coast and another large region is in northwest Australia – north of Perth.
Fig. 6.  Sky darkness over southern Africa showing that NE South Africa is heavily affected by Johannesburg light dome and other sources. In western South Africa, except for the south coast and around Cape Town, dark skies are widespread. This is even more evident over Botswana and Namibia.

d)  Site access really means – are there places where you can – with peace of mind – set your scope up all night – without fear of people or police stopping by and telling you to move on?  This can be harder to find than you might think in some parts of the world.

e) Finally, we have clouds… and this is what cannot be predicted far in advance.  However, the climatology of cloudiness can be estimated – based on historical observations, and this can be used to plan astronomical travels.  We discuss all of these items for different regions of the globe in this section.

Global Cloudiness Products

There are now a variety of global cloud climatology products available on the internet.  One global product for daytime cloudiness is here, but this product has some problems – especially apparent in less cloudy regions as discussed (way down) in this paper.  But as a first pass, these products are acceptable to help plan your travels.  Unfortunately, the products shown below are based on daytime imagery – generally at 1030AM and 130PM local times  – the satellites providing the imagery are polar-orbiting ones in sun-synchronous orbits.  Fortunately, most nighttime cloudiness is less than that in the daytime – except for coastal areas (such as along the Pacific coasts of South and North America).

 Fig 7.  A variety of the mean cloudiness products that are available.  See the individual captions for explanations.  These are based on 5 km pixels resolution images. In the grayscale images , the areas of greater cloudiness are whiter areas, the darker areas are those with less cloudiness. The colorized means have the cloud frequency table included.

 Non-astronomical or climatological factors

But there are important aspects of any astronomical travel that are not mentioned above.  These can relate to the travel logistics – how many day and nights can you afford?  How quickly and easily can you get to your destination?

And then there are the “non-astronomical” aspects of astronomical travel.  Suppose you arrive and the weather is unsuitable for observing for the next three days – what can you do to make use of your valuable “down time”?   If you fly half way around the world and are clouded out, you will probably feel guilty of having spent so much money if you don’t have a good “plan B” ready to implement.  Having been to the three southern continents (I’m excluding Antarctica here because few amateur astronomers will ever go there – for making telescope observations at least) I do have ideas for what you can do with “down time”.  These ideas actually will form a fair portion of this website.

Travel to Northern Hemisphere locations

Travelers to good astronomical destinations in the Northern Hemisphere fall into two broad categories:  1) those that live in the Southern Hemisphere and want to see northern skies and 2) individuals who live in areas of great light pollution (e.g. western Europe or the eastern US) and/or frequent cloudiness and want to see darker and less-cloudy skies.  A smaller group of amateur astronomers might be those that live in high latitudes (e.g. Canada or northern Europe) and want to travel south for the winter, yet still remain in the Northern Hemisphere.  This group of travelers doesn’t really exist in the Southern Hemisphere because few people live south of 45˚S (only in Patagonia and southern Chile and a small tip of New Zealand) and no one but scientists and their support personnel live south of 55˚S.  In contrast, all of Finland, Sweden and Norway lie north of 55˚N, and all of the UK, Germany and most of France lie poleward of 45˚N.

Where to travel to in the Northern Hemisphere?  One could look to the current locations of astronomical observatories, but these locations are sometimes based on political decisions rather than best observing considerations.  Most observatories are placed for optimal viewing, but they may be restricted to certain political regions if they are funded by national agencies.  Or, some smaller observatories might be located closer to population centers – since public outreach might be their main purpose.

We consider first the light pollution maps for Europe and for North America and discuss the possibilities separately.  Then we consider the cloud climatologies based on various sources.  Our discussion is not exhaustive – this would take far too long for a webpage of this type.  We will point our some basic factors that should help European and North American amateur astronomers plan their travels.


Looking at the light pollution map of Europe (Fig 8) we can see that Europeans have a good reason to travel to find better astronomical sites – most of Europe has no dark skies!  Some very small islands in the eastern Mediterranean (most probably without access) appear to have truly dark skies, as well as part of northern Scotland, but all other non-oceanic areas lack truly dark skies.  Some areas, mostly mountainous, have relatively darker skies, but not compared with what can be found in the western US for example.  Of course, near the arctic one can find darker skies, but then only in the winter – not a desirable destination!

Fig. 8  Light pollution over Europe. Dark skies are black, brightest skies are red. Few land areas in Europe have really dark skies.

Relatively near dark skies can be found in the Sahara, but current political situation isn’t conducive for travel to much of this area.  And, even in areas seemingly without cities, natural gas flares can strongly impact the sky brightness – especially in the Middle-East and in the northern Sahara.   The Canary Islands are a well-know vacation destination for European tourists – at any time of the year, but despite the presence of large astronomical observatories there, the actual sky darkness isn’t ideal (Fig. 9).  Only the far western island of El Hierro has relatively dark skies on its western side.  However, unless you are above the low-cloud layer common to this part of the Atlantic, clouds will be an ever-present concern.

Canary Islands light pollution
Fig. 9  Sky brightness over the Canary Islands, a very popular tourist destination for Europeans. The western part of El Hierro, the westernmost island, has the darkest skies. El Hierro is the least populated island and the most difficult of access.  Of course, clouds are an ever-present threat to observing on the islands – except in locations above the trade-wind inversion (stratus is below this level).

In summary, for many Europeans, the best option may be to travel to either southern Africa (South Africa, Namibia or Botswana), or to North America.  The decision might come down to evaluating the relative importance of astronomical activities compared with other activities.

North America

In general, light pollution is serious over the eastern US – where most people live, while there are dark skies in many parts of the western US.  For those living in the eastern US the easiest option is probably to accept less-than-idea conditions and travel (based on weather forecasts) to the areas indicated in Figure 10 below.  These are among the best locations for dark skies in the east.

Sky brightness over the northeastern US with select dark sky regions
Fig 10.  Sky brightness over the northeastern US. The major urban areas are evident, as are the relatively few dark sky regions in the US (far north in Canada there are large areas). The white dots indicate areas that are most favorable for astronomical observation – based on minimal light pollution. The northernmost is in upstate Maine, the next south is over the Adirondack Mountains, the third area is in Pennsylvania (state forests north of State College) and the southernmost is on the Virginia – West Virginia border (the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests). There are other areas in the southeast US (not shown). Most of the NE US population is within a half-day’s drive on one of these regions.

For serious observers (and those with more available time and money) it is better to travel westward – indeed southwestward to darker (and generally warmer) locations.  Some of the suitable dark sky areas are shown in the figure below.

Sky brightness over the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico
Fig 11.  Sky brightness over the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico and some of the sites suitable for dark sky observations. The dots are the approximate locations of 1) Death Valley National Park, 2) North Rim of the Grand Canyon, 3) west of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, 4) Gila Mountains of New Mexico, 5) Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona), 6) Kenton, Oklahoma – site of the annual Okie-Tex Star Party, 7) Big Bend National Park, 8) The location of the 3RF (Three Rivers Foundation) Astronomy Campus. The 3RF is the closest good dark sky location to the Dallas-Ft Worth Metroplex.

As we live in central Oklahoma (the state north of Texas for those unfamiliar with US states) our personal favorite observing location is the Big Bend National Park (see Fig 12 or pdf of entire park).  Not only is this a very dark location, but it is the southernmost good mainland observing location in the US (about 30˚N) and the park has a great variety of natural attractions, including cacti and other succulent plants (one of our passions).   A presentation we prepared on the natural history of the Big Bend National Park can be seen here.   The Big Bend area is not quite as warm as some parts of southern Arizona and California during the winter, but it is darker and it is closer to people living in the eastern and Central US.  Accommodations include a lodge in the higher part of the park, three campgrounds with electrical connections and other facilities.  There are many primitive campsites (nothing but a parking spot and a “bear box” for your food) in the park that are great for observing – if you can get to them (many, but not all, are 4×4 or at least high clearance vehicle accessible only). Outside the park there are a few small motels in the community of Study Butte, west of the Park, or Terlingua, a few miles farther west.

Central part of the Big Bend National Park.
Fig 12.  Central part of the Big Bend National Park. Download the pdf for the entire map.

A view of the light pollution around Big Bend National Park is shown in Fig 13 – with our preferred campsites for astronomical viewing shown (approximately).

Big Bend National Park and distance to main light source - Ojinaga, Mexico
Fig 13.  Some campgrounds (red dots) in Big Bend National Park and distance to main light source – Ojinaga, Mexico.  The red dot above the middle of the map is the location of the Texas Star Party (near the Davis Mountains State Park, Texas and just south of the McDonald Observatory of the University of Texas.  This site is not as dark as Big Bend National Park, but is closer to population centers like El Paso and Midland.

Dark skies and the southern sky

During the warm months of the year there are many dark sky regions in the western US as indicated by the black areas in Fig. 11.  One aspect I have not mentioned but that is important to many amateurs, is the ability to see more of the “southern sky”.  While a location near Yellowstone National Park and Big Bend National Park may be similarly dark, one is near 45˚N and the other is near 30˚N.   This difference in latitude corresponds directly to the same difference in the southernmost latitude visible in the sky.  This is illustrated in Fig 14 which compares views looking south towards Scorpius on June 10th at 23 UTC  from different latitudes (45˚N (Yellowstone), 30˚N (Big Bend) and 20˚N (Hawaii).

Fig 14.  This figure compares the views of Scorpius from three latitudes on June 10th at 23UTC.  The field of view (top to bottom) is 45˚.  Click on the first image to see the sequence. These images are from the website: You can enter any day and time and get the views in different directions.

At 45˚N the globular cluster Omega Centauri, at its highest, is several degrees below the southern horizon, while at the same time in Big Bend it is approximately 13 degrees above the southern horizon.  Since the southern Milky Way region has many features of interest to amateur telescopes, most Northern Hemisphere astronomers want a southern site for their astronomical observations, winter or summer.  A few good regions in the western US (with camping options and some with hotels relatively nearby) are shown in Fig. 11.  These are ones we are familiar with – having visited for birding, astronomy, or other natural history objectives.

Equatorial regions

We don’t discuss the deep tropics – those regions relatively close to the Equator for several reasons.  Most importantly, this region tends to be quite cloudy on average – though there are some exceptions (east Africa for parts of the year, and parts of coastal and Highland Ecuador and Peru for parts of the year.  Since there are interesting astronomical features – like the Small Magellanic Cloud, less than 20 degrees from the astronomical South Pole, these cannot be seen high in the sky from near-equatorial regions.  Also, touristic infrastructure in Equatorial Africa and South America tends to be less developed than in much of the extratropics – though there are notable exceptions (Singapore for example).

The Southern Hemisphere

A trip to observe the southern skies is the dream of many amateur astronomers from Europe and North America.  Highlights include seeing the details in the Eta Carina nebula, the very bright but different globular clusters like Omega Centauri and 47 Tucana, and exploring the two Magellanic Clouds with their nebulae, open and globular clusters.

There are really only three good options for astronomers from the Northern Hemisphere to see the southern skies from land.  One has to travel to southern Africa, southern South America, or Australia.  See Fig 15.

Fig 15.  The typical or at least most plausible travel routes for astronomical tourists coming from Europe, North America or Japan (China is roughly similar to Japan). Distances are in miles between major airports (not all airport 3-letter codes correspond to the actual airports – I put what would be quickly recognizable). Note that some flights are nearly along the same longitude (no jet lag) while others cross many time zones (e.g. Atlanta to Cape Town or Los Angeles to Sydney).

New Zealand is relatively cloudy compared with most of Australia, and the smaller islands across the southern oceans are either difficult of access or cloudy much of the time.  Because of the geography of Africa and South America, there is relatively little landmass in the extratropics of these continents, so the choice of when to go is slightly simplified.  Australia, having a large landmass in latitudes favorable for seeing the southern skies, has a wider range of options for where to go.  We discuss these three regions in turn.

Southern Africa

The interior parts of South Africa, and most of Namibia and Botswana, are relatively cloud-free for much of the year.  Least cloudiness is present during the dry season, which in eastern South African and most of Botswana and Namibia is in the May-October period (approximately).  In the Cape Town region, extending eastward along the coast and northward towards the Namibian border the cloudiness and rainfall is greatest during the winter season (as in California).  The regions of the Little Karoo, protected from maritime clouds by coastal mountain ranges, and small towns of the Great Karoo – even farther inland – are good locations for astronomical observations.  These are about a half-day ‘s drive (200 mi) from Cape Town, depending on where your destination is.

Fig 16.  South African relief, areas of touristic interest and light pollution maps.

The advantages that relatively large countries like Botswana and Namibia have is that they have low populations (about 2 million each) and little light pollution outside towns.  Even in South Africa, with almost 50 million people, most people are concentrated in urban areas and there are large swaths of land that are unpopulated.   Most importantly, in these three countries there are many safari-lodge type destinations with both camping and luxury accommodations.  Many of these are set on their own large ranches with ideal conditions for observing.  Outside of these types of accommodations, many so-called “farms” (equivalent to ranches in the US) offer surprisingly affordable self-catering cottages (a kitchen is in the cottage and you cook your meals) for rent, often on ideal country landscapes with little light pollution.  We tend to stay at these because we are interested in the succulent plants and natural landscapes on these “farms”, though the dark skies at many of them are an additional bonus.  Downloading the farm kmz file (showing places where we have stayed), you can compare with the light pollution kmz, to see which farms are suitable for astronomical observing (assuming moonless and cloud-free conditions of course).  The overlay should show something like that shown in the figure below.

Fig 17.  Southern South Africa showing farm cottages we have stayed at and their associated light pollution.  Click on the first image to see text and step through the slide show to see details.

Despite the large number of large National Parks (e.g. Etosha, Kruger, Chobe, Kalahari Gemsbok) and reserves in southern Africa, you cannot drive out at night and set up your telescope just anywhere.  Due to the dangerous game (e.g. elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, etc.) roaming around these parks (some parks without such game are excepted, like the Tankwa Karoo and the Richtersveld), overnight visitors are confined to fenced rest camps – which can have their own light pollution sources.  Some Parks are aware of the desire to minimize light pollution, while others are less concerned with this.   Walking around a rest camp at night will allow you to find the best sites for observing – there are usually some in every camp.  The downside of observing at night is that you will want to be active for morning game drives and late afternoon game drives… when will you sleep?

South America

South America has large areas of dark skies, but the Amazon Basin is quite humid and cloudiness is relatively high compared with many parts of western Argentina and northern Chile – away from the coast.  Many parts of Peru also meet very dark sky criteria, but as Peru ranges from about 3˚S to 18˚S latitude, many objects near the South Pole are not as high in the sky as in Chile.  Also, convective clouds develop over the Andes during the daytime for much of the year and the cirrus clouds resulting from these convective storms often moves westward – over the coastal regions, at least in northern and central Peru.  Thus, northern Chile and northwestern Argentina (at least during the dry season, roughly May-October) are the preferred regions in South America for most astronomical observations.

The best locations for lodging in Chile and Argentina depend on what additional interests you might have.  In northern Chile the town of San Pedro de Atacama is well know as a tourist destination with visits to geysers (small compared with those in Yellowstone National Park) and the nearby dry lake with its flamingos and salt flats as local attractions.  Unfortunately, to find the darkest skies you will need to travel outside of the town itself and perhaps 25 miles towards Argentina (see Fig 18).  But you need to climb from San Pedro (8000 ft), along a paved highway that does, in about 14 miles, an amazing almost-straight ascent to 14,000 ft!   About 25 miles from San Pedro (as the crow flies) you arrive at a junction that leads to Bolivia – see the example below of a “suitable observing site – just off the “main” road from Calama (Chile) to Salta, Argentina.  Only drawback of this site is its altitude – 15,000 ft (4600m)!

Fig 18.  Google “street view” perspective of a possible observing site east of San Pedro de Atacama.  Last image is bird’s eye view of the turnoff.  Fairly light traffic at night, but still advisable to get off the paved road a ways to set up your scope (we haven’t done this).

If you pay careful attention to the light pollution maps you should be able to find sites that are dark, but these areas may not have any accommodation.  This makes setting up a bit difficult – we have done this on the side of the Pan American Highway, but even in the early morning hours there is truck and inter-city bus traffic that forces you to shield your eyes every few minutes and waiting for the vehicle to pass by.  This is far from ideal.  Getting off on side dirt roads is possible – but best done prior to nightfall, and ideally with a high clearance vehicle.  We don’t have specific locations to suggest, but again, as with Australia, checking Google Earth imagery and the light pollution and cloudiness overlays should help you decide on your best options.

Some of the main towns with hotel accommodations in northern Chile (here defined as north of La Serena) are subject to low stratus clouds during the nighttime hours.  These towns are either on the coast, or in river valleys – along which the coastal low clouds can extend considerable distance inland at night.

While I have focused on Chile in the discussion above, Argentina, east of the Andes, also has suitable observing locations that have both dark skies and areas with infrequent clouds.  Some of these areas are at lower elevations than in Chile and could be warmer during the summer months.  If you have other interests, such as in cacti or birding, there is more to see in Argentina than in Chile – at least in terms of diversity of species.  Again, as in Chile, finding accommodation outside of towns is not easy.  Despite the great proliferation of country houses (casas rurales) for tourists in Spain,  Latin America has not developed this aspect of Spanish culture to nearly the same degree.  Most accommodations are in cities or towns.  And since National or State Parks usually have poor camping or accommodation infrastructure, this makes planning an astronomical excursion to dark skies challenging, even with the aid of light pollution and mean cloudiness maps.


Although the mean annual cloudiness over much of the interior of Australia is low compared with many other parts of the world, one has to consider several additional factors.  During the southern wintertime, southern Australia is relatively cloudy near coastal areas while northern and central Australia are relatively cloud-free (refer to Fig 7 above to see this).  The opposite is true during the southern summer, with considerable cloudiness in the north, associated with what Australians call “the wet”.  Darwin, the main city in northern Australia, shows a very strong seasonal cycle of precipitation.  In the center of Australia, Alice Springs is probably the most suitable base for observations, though the town itself produces enough light pollution to require traveling to some location well away from the town itself.  See the Fig 19 for a monthly mean histogram of the main climate variables for three towns, from Darwin on the north coast, to Alice Springs in the middle of Australia.

Fig 19.  Climate diagrams for three towns in northern and central Australia.  Click on the Australia map to start the slide sequence.

Roadhouses can be great bases for those who are camping (they also have lodging).  These are usually located on long, lonely stretches of highway where they can be the only source of food, fuel and accommodations.  However, local light sources right around the roadhouses can be problematic, so you may still have to drive a few miles away to observe.

There are many camping sites or 24-hr rest stops on the outback highways, and these can usually be identified by using Google Earth.  Sometimes trucks or other campers will pull in late at night, so you will want to pick a site that is off to one side of such sites (and away from the bathrooms).

Of course there are many ranches in the outback, and some of these offer accommodation.

Though there are low mountain ranges (peaks to 1500m) in the interior of Australia, much of central and northern Australia is relatively flat, and few spots have a dramatically worse or better climatology of cloudiness.  The cloudiness tends to be of large spatial scale – associated in winter with extratropical cyclones and their cold frontal regions, or during the summer, with recurving tropical cyclones that form over the Arafura Sea, between Australia and New Guinea and over the eastern Indian Ocean.  These can adversely affect observing for an entire week over central Australia.  If you are serious about traveling to Australia (for any reason) you should check out the basic climate maps at the Bureau of Meteorology’s website.  One starting point for climatological sunlight maps is here, but you need to spend some time exploring their site to extract much of the information.  Remember that daytime cloudiness tends to be greater than nighttime cloudiness, especially over tropical land areas where cumulus clouds develop in the daytime, but generally dissipate at night, as the boundary layer stabilizes.  But the cirrus produced from afternoon storms can last some time… well into the night.

Although traveling to northern Australia during the “wet” is generally not recommended – due to the excessive rainfall, and high humidity, this is the season to see amphibians, birds and a host of other organisms that become active during the wet season when the entire food chain spins-up, as the life depends ultimately on new vegetation growth – that insects munch on – and that higher organisms eat…  But for observing the night skies it is less desirable than the dry season, which has lower humidity, much fewer clouds, but many more tourists!

Keep in mind that during the dry season in northern Australia there may be burning of agricultural fields or ranch lands and this smoke can be substantial.  This will occur in parts of South America and southern Africa as well – though the drier the area the less the burning.  The Atacama will have none, and much of western South Africa and Namibia will have little.  But east of the Andes and parts of eastern Namibia and Botswana will see smoke at times during the dry season.

Perhaps more challenging in the outback is to decide what to do if the cloudiness isn’t ideal for astronomical observations.  If you are at a roadhouse or at a ranch house, to see something novel or different might require driving hundreds of miles.  Much of the outback is relatively uniform, though if you are near Alice Springs the big rocks  (e.g. Uluru/Ayers Rock or the Kata Tjuṯa/Olgas) would be obvious destinations – but at 460km distance to the “closer” Ayers Rock, this wouldn’t exactly be a day trip.

If you are closer to Darwin (winter only!) there is plenty to do at the various national parks east or south of Darwin.  Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge) is about 170 miles southeast of Darwin, but lies at the fringes of the light dome of the town of Katherine.  The campground at Edith Falls is outside the Katherine light dome however.   Kakadu National Park has camping and expensive lodges (Arora Kakadu is perhaps the most affordable) and is 80-150 miles east of Darwin.  Unfortunately, the main lodge in the small town of Jabiru is in the light dome of a large Uranium mine nearby!  However, several other lodges and campgrounds are in dark sky locations.  The Litchfield National Park, 50+miles south of Darwin, has camping.  And there are accommodations outside the park – though these are somewhat light affected.  You would want to be well outside of Darwin in any case due to its light dome.

Be sure to check out our talks on Australia here.  There are three separate talks (with a bit of a bird focus since they were prepared for a local Audubon Chapter) related to a 2016 trip and farther down the list, from 2010, a talk that shows more of the outback, including our airline-transportable Celestron Nextstar 8 inch telescope.  The talks have a heavy emphasis on natural history of the continent.

Final aspects of astronomy travel

We wish there was a 14 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that could be stuffed safety into our checked luggage for our travel to the Southern Hemisphere.  To date, we have been unable to find such a telescope – we have managed to partly disassemble our Nextstar 8 inch so that we can get it into a large (but not oversized) piece of luggage.  Plenty of bubble-wrap and padding seemed to be sufficient to fly with it to Australia and to South Africa (Fig 20).  The optical tube assembly remains intact and provided there is sufficient padding the tube should suffer no damage from a “short” fall.  Remember, our Celestron NexStar 8 SE is a $1000 telescope – it is less expensive than our cameras, prime lenses, or laptops that we are also taking – for non-astronomical photography.  However, if your telescope is worth $10K, putting it in checked luggage is another matter.   In any case, your astronomical equipment will require at least 1-2 suitcases extra.

Celestron Nextstar 8 SE telescope at Cottage 1, Tankwa Karoo National Park, South Africa
Fig 20.  Rosario next to our Celestron Nextstar 8 SE telescope at Cottage 1, Tankwa Karoo National Park, South Africa. This telescope traveled with us to South Africa via checked-luggage. The tube separates from the mount and goes into one piece of luggage, and the mount separates from the tripod and they go into other pieces of luggage. The telescope has survived flights to South Africa and to Australia.  This location (above) had very dark skies – but there were some clouds…

Keep in mind that if you travel to a destination for astronomical observing, it is quite possible that, out of 30 days on travel, you may have less than one week of good observing nights.  The moon will interfere for part of the month, and other activities will conflict with observing on some other days.  Then, a long night of observations will put you out-of-action for the following day(s), so you will lose time there.  And of course there will be clouds for some portion of your travels, reducing observing nights even further.  You hope the moonless nights aren’t also cloudy!

Carefully picking the time of year and time of the month can improve your odds of better observing conditions (e.g. select the dry season and schedule your 14 day trip with one week on either side of the new moon).  Then selecting observing locations with very dark skies and a minimum in climatological cloudiness will help even more.  After that it is mostly luck!

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