Image: Cherry Springs State Park, Pa.
David Wymer  /  Visit Pennsylvania
Cherry Springs State Park, Pa., is a 48-acre park heralded by stargazers as one of the best locations to see a pristine night sky, which includes a view of the Milky Way Galaxy's nucleus.
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updated 6/24/2008 3:37:40 PM ET 2008-06-24T19:37:40

The night sky is disappearing before our eyes. The thousands of stars once visible to the naked eye are now obscured by the glare of industrial light and the haze of pollution. This is particularly true in the U.S. and Europe, where light researchers estimate that a child born today in either region has a one in 10 chance of witnessing a truly dark sky.

Though most people will insist they have seen this dazzling spectacle, dark skies as nature intended them are rare. City dwellers, for example, usually glimpse fewer than 500 stars. In the most undisturbed areas, some 15,000 stars are on display as is the sprawling Milky Way. Stargazers under this kind of night sky might see 30 or more meteors per hour.

"You can no longer just take a short drive from the city and look at the Milky Way or the northern lights," says Chad Moore, a board director for the International Dark-Sky Association, a Tucson-based nonprofit organization. "Now it's quite an endeavor to find those dark places."

Luckily, budding stargazers will find that summer is the ideal season to start looking. While cool winter skies are less obscured by haze and humidity, temperatures can be prohibitively cold. Since the best night skies are in very remote locations where lodging options are limited to small inns or outdoors camping, potential stargazers should get used to the idea of roughing it. The pay-off will be more than memorable, however, when you return with memories of a galaxy rarely seen.

Setting the standard
Pristine night skies are an endangered habitat, at least according to the International Dark-Sky Association. They are not only beautiful to behold, but they are an integral part of wild and human life.

Light pollution, defined as obtrusive light that affects the environment, can disrupt the circadian rhythm of humans and the patterns of nocturnal animals. For humans, chronic light pollution can inhibit the production of the restorative hormone melatonin. Artificial light can also trick nocturnal animals into sleeping or migrating at the wrong time.

As industrial light creeps as far as 200 miles from its origin, threatening formerly remote skies, the IDA has started designating certain areas as refuges. These are skies so dark "that it becomes difficult to pick out the constellations." says Moore. "You might spend 30 minutes dark-adapting, but afterward you can still walk around and not trip on things."

The first park to receive the designation of "International Dark Sky Park" was Utah's Natural Bridges National Monument. In the southeastern corner of the state, this park boasts Bortle Class 2 skies. The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale measures night sky brightness on a scale of one to nine, or pristinely dark to inner-city bright.

In layman's terms, this means that stargazers at National Bridges can see the marbled structure of the Milky Way and the whitish glow of the zodiacal light, a faint band of particles that runs east to west. During the summer, rangers lead educational walks and programs to teach visitors about astronomy.

The IDA has deemed only one other U.S. park as an International Dark Sky Park. Cherry Springs State Park on Pennsylvania's northwestern border is 48 acres of unspoiled stargazing, which includes a view of the Milky Way Galaxy's nucleus. What you won't see is frequent air traffic, overhead electrical lines or obtrusive park lighting.

Starry, starry skies
These two parks have set the standard for stargazing, but there are several locations around the world that offer equally stunning views.

Mont-Mégantic National Park in Quebec, Canada, sits within a newly designated International Dark Sky Reserve, a patchwork of land in Canada dedicated to preserving excellent night sky conditions. It is notable not only for its unobstructed view of the skies, but also for its ASTROLab, an astronomy interpretation center open to the public.

Image: Mont-Mégantic National Park, Quebec, Canada
Sebastien Giguere  /  Parc national du Mont-Mégantic
The Mont-Mégantic National Park, Quebec, Canada sits within a newly designated International Dark Sky Reserve, a patchwork of land in Canada dedicated to preserving excellent night sky conditions. Mont-Mégantic is notable not only for its unobstructed view of the skies, but also for its ASTROLab, an astronomy interpretation center open to the public. It is located about 145 miles east of Montreal.
Among the eucalyptus woodlands in New South Wales, Australia, there is 100 acres of land designated for stargazing. Owned by a local astronomy society, the land has both observation facilities and basic accommodations, though most prefer to camp. Each year, the society hosts a "South Pacific Star Party," during which 200 to 400 people convene for a weekend of star watching beneath one of the world's darkest skies.

Parties like these are organized frequently around the world, and are a great opportunity for novice stargazers to learn more about the hobby. Another occasion is a night sky event like the Perseid meteor showers this August. For a few hours between early morning and early dawn on Aug. 12, 50 to 100 shooting stars will pass through the sky.

"These meteors are all different brightness," Joe Rao, an associate/guest lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. "Some streak across the skies, explode right in front of you and pop like a flashbulb."

To truly enjoy the show, he says, bring company. "It's a lot of fun when you're with other people," he says. "If you see a big one, you'll hear a roar like someone just hit a home run."

© 2012 Forbes.com

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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