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Is a dark site really worth the travel?


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This isn't really a question but I needed a catchy title as I believe there will always be people who, at least at some point try to bypass the benefits that are to be achieved by travelling from an urban or semi rural area to a true dark site. I should know this as I was one of these people when I first got into astronomy circa 10 years since.

So unless you are one of the lucky few who live in places such as Brecon beacons, Forrest of Galloway or similar, please read on.

When I first got into the hobby, I read countless pages on forums and was constantly drawn towards XXmanufacturerXX super duper filter in an effort to get amazing results from my back garden with an SQM of 17.5/Bortle 6 and despite numerous people telling me, I was at first unable to grasp the idea that a few quid on petrol was my best option instead of some fancy filter. Part of it was at least due to lack of confidence as I had not done this before.

Anyway, I did start travelling out to darker areas after a few years when I joined a local group of amateurs like myself who had meet ups at semi dark places down to around bortle 4. Still not mega dark but certainly much better than my back garden and I did notice an improvement in my results. I think the impetus of actually joining a group gave me the little push and boost in confidence needed to get me out and from then on I did look more and more for darker places to view from. 

My epiphany came around 5 years ago when I went to Galloway Astronomy Centre for a weekend.  I won't walk you through every last bit, simply that I had to ask where stars were to align on because I was lost in the sea of light which greeted my eyes when I walked out for the evening session. I saw as much in one night under those gorgeous skies than I had seen in the previous 4 years at numerous other sites.

It was at this point, with the sound of a huge penny clanging around in my head that I became committed to travelling for my dark sky viewing. Sadly some of my previously great sites have lost some of their lustre since the UK's obsession with LED street lighting. These lights may be energy efficient but they are also dark skies worst enemy. Slight tangent here but my most previous visit to Galloway AC showed the sky had brightened from SQM 21.5 to 20.5. Clouds previously invisible were able to be seen, worrying times. 

Back to the thread,  I will say to anyone who has a car and doubts if the travel is worth it, try it. Even if you have a 1 hour or more drive the results will more than be worth the washed out view from a light polluted garden. If you are struggling with travel, join an astronomy club and I am sure someone will oblige in taking you to a star party.  

This is said on here time and again but it is so important a point I shall repeat it. You will see more through a 4" scope at a good dark site than you will through an 8" one in a light polluted area. 

I now have three dark sites at varying distance. One is a half hour and sqm 19.5, great for impromptu or short sessions but I would say it only just qualifies as dark. There is one an hour away and sqm 20 ish although it is very exposed but my local group use it so I do with them. My final one which I have visited but as yet not viewed from it or light unmeasured. This is 1.5 hours away and I anticipate it will be SQM 21+ or bortle 2 going off my findings to date. I have high hopes for this one.

My most recent report on here was from a site with sqm 21+ skies during which I achieved a galaxy down to 14.2 magnitude and views of other objects that were amazing and simply not achievable in an urban environment. This was actually in Galloway but a few miles travel from the astronomy centre and a well placed hill did wonders for the sky.

So get to the darkest place you can even if it means going that extra few miles on the road. You will see and remember more from one great night in pitch black than you will from ten average nights under LP'd or semi decent skies.

Happy viewing all. 

Steve

 

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All true. I look forward to my late summer/autumn camping trips so much now. Booked on or just either side of new moon. The temperature is usually still warmish and the great British weather doesn't always play ball but when it does... Heaven.

In the day time the missus is kept happy with a market and a pub. At night the sky is mine to enjoy. I've said this previously but the best accessories for urban astronomers are a sleeping bag and a tent!

Edited by ScouseSpaceCadet
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Applies for imaging too i have found. Its always worth it to travel to darker skies even if the extra travel time means you get half the time to image in the end. I have started using a bortle 4/SQM21.3 location instead of my usual SQM19.5 spot and have found that an hour from the better skies can be about the same in value as an entire night in the worse spot... Difficult to tell myself to do the extra travel (1h extra both ways) but the results are obvious so at least moonless nights will always have me travel further from now on. Getting just a couple of hours of decent subs from the darker location is more than the worse location could give me in an entire night so i waste less clear skies too.

Cant change the weather, but can choose to use the weather more efficiently!

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To escape my SQM 18.78 London suburb it`s a straight 2 hour drive up the A12 to Suffolk for my deep sky heaven at SQM 21.5. I`ll pack the tent and dob and stay out for a couple of nights.  It is such an amazing difference in sky darkness for me, the journey is worth it and I have so many great memories.

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1 hour ago, Dave scutt said:

My garden is fine at SQM at 21.8

Only someone with a heart of flint could put that out so coldly!

Nevertheless, and without any rancour, enjoy. 😑

North view from my garden (for the next year, apparently!) attached.

 

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4 hours ago, Dave scutt said:

I'm glad I don't have to travel with the price of petrol these days. 

My garden is fine at SQM at 21.8

You sir are in the lucky 0.01% of the population who live in such areas, 21.8 is in the, "there is nothing you cannot see from this region of the planet" group and you are very lucky.

BTW I am not one bit jealous, honest!

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100% agree. I have a few spots, furthest being half an hour away, though in Northants you're a decent drive away from really good skies. Back garden is almost impossible for anything deep sky due to a street lamp right at the fence, so it doesn't take much of an excuse to load the van up and go out. I like the sense of adventure that comes with traveling to a dark(er) sky to observe, and with a little Vangelis in the background, makes for a very peaceful and relaxing night. 

Here's the issue with the back garden... 

20220211_211739.thumb.jpg.6351a8181281790fb8186fac9f53e8ab.jpg

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5 hours ago, Phil Fargaze said:

To escape my SQM 18.78 London suburb it`s a straight 2 hour drive up the A12 to Suffolk for my deep sky heaven at SQM 21.5. I`ll pack the tent and dob and stay out for a couple of nights.  It is such an amazing difference in sky darkness for me, the journey is worth it and I have so many great memories.

Where do you go in Suffolk just out of interest? I have been planning an evening at darker skies in Suffolk which is close to me - anywhere between Rendlesham and Dunwich looks really dark. 

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There are Pros & Cons, even to dark sites.

I'm also one of the those 0.01% who live in a Bortle 2 area and the skies are fantastic.

On the flip side;

  • I also live in one of the wettest parts of the UK, with only 5 rainless days through Jan & Feb this year (that's rainless, not clear!).
  • Between mid-May and mid-August we have Twilight all night, so it's too light to trying any imaging.
  • By the time it does get dark enough to image, we're well into the season of Clan MacMidge, and that can last into October!

Would I change location? Nah! :D

Oh, and if you haven't experienced Clan MacMidge, here's a wee video for you, see if you can watch it without scratching:

 

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8 hours ago, RobertI said:

Where do you go in Suffolk just out of interest? I have been planning an evening at darker skies in Suffolk which is close to me - anywhere between Rendlesham and Dunwich looks really dark. 

I go to Haw Wood Farm camp site near to Hinton just a bit inland from Dunwich. They hold a spring and autumn star party, although at the moment they have had to shut for repairs. There is a recent thread about this here. I Haven't really noticed any significant light pollution from Southwold or Halesworth from that location. . I would certainly say that in the AONB from Rendlesham and upwards would certainly be dark, apart from the area near to Sizewell.

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I fully agree that a darker sky is well worth the effort of travel, 
My club has access to two sites in Essex, one is a big improvement on in town observing,
the second site is quite something special, but far more of  challenge to access.

The cost of fuel etc, in present times is a consideration for many, but with what we invest in kit,
well perhaps even the eye watering fuel cost is still very much a wise one.

But I would say that imagers and visual observers in the same location can cause issues,
the imagers take longer to set up and light out, they often wish to leave sooner too.
This is an observation not a criticism of whichever strand of Astronomy you follow.

A dark sky, worth the effort, oh yes.

Edited by Alan White
terrible typo!
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I almost exclusively observe from my light polluted back yard as other committments mean most of my observing sessions are short and are not planned in advance. I'm also not confident going to dark sites on my own and there's no real astro observing scene nearby.

However this thread has got me thinking... If there was an active observing scene somewhere dark and within 90 minites or so from me I could join a distant astro society just to go to the observing sessions. That might work well.

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Now down to new moon SQM 17.01. Just planets , binaries , bright planetaries and clusters left. Don't need a head torch even.

i am lucky enough to get to Skye every year. To see so many stars even down to the horizon is awesome . To see the rifts in the Milky Way just lifts the soul.

There are dark places around , but nothing beats pristine sky.

everyone and their kids should experience it. For me it takes me back to what our ancestors must have wondered about.

Light pollution has come last against other concerns such as carbon.

lift your soul and go dark !

old Nick.

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I totally agree about the merits of dark sky observing, and making the effort to get to observe under them. Before moving to Somerset, my skies near Heathrow were mag 19 ish so I used to look forward to my annual camping trips to Dorset and Devon with the children. Skies there were around mag 20.5, enough to see the Milky Way clearly, and for me to get an annual fix of the Veil, NAN and plenty of other DSOs.

My skies here are about the same, so even in the back garden it is much more rewarding than before, although there are some bright lights on the buildings a few hundred metres below the garden so these do affect my ability to get dark adapted. I’m looking into some screening to help manage that, and the skies above are actually pretty good.

Mag 21.3 ish is about the best I’ve ever observed in, and I would love to get somewhere properly dark. Exmoor is not so far away now,  and an autumn trip there may be worthwhile.

My only reservation on this is as follows. Some people make a decision ONLY to observe from dark sites, which is fine if that suits you. In my case that would have led to me giving up astronomy altogether, as the pressures of work, family and the uncertainty of the weather would not allow monthly trips or weekends away. I have chosen to continue the hobby in the best way I can, focusing on Lunar, planetary and solar observing a lot of the time, with deep sky as an opportunistic part of the hobby, done whenever I’m on holiday or at a star party.

Of course, now I have darkish skies in the garden, and access to mag 21 skies within 15 to 30 mins, and even better within 90 mins I guess. Moving down here was a big upheaval though, so I’ve not made any trips yet. Hopefully come the autumn that will change.

My advice is, don’t give up on astronomy if you can’t get to a dark site regularly. Instead, modify your interests and targets to get the most out of it and take any chance possible to get under those darks skies when you can. It’s all a balance.

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4 hours ago, Phil Fargaze said:

I go to Haw Wood Farm camp site near to Hinton just a bit inland from Dunwich. They hold a spring and autumn star party, although at the moment they have had to shut for repairs. There is a recent thread about this here. I Haven't really noticed any significant light pollution from Southwold or Halesworth from that location. . I would certainly say that in the AONB from Rendlesham and upwards would certainly be dark, apart from the area near to Sizewell.

have a look on here:

https://gostargazing.co.uk/dark-sky-sites-across-uk/

there's a few a bit north of there - I was gonna maybe try one of them in the motorhome, what with Haw Farm being out of action

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A very good point there @Stu.  While my post above is obviously referring to deep sky viewing of faint DSO's, a non dark sky still allows alternative viewing options as you quite rightly stated.

I did mention my almost dark site with the half hour travel at sqm 19.5, it does for brighter dso only such as M82,81, the ring and other planetary nebula and such like.

However I have also learned a lesson from my recent trip to not ignore brighter dso (M51 in this instance) at dark sky sites in favour of hunting for faint fuzzies. 

The views of these brighter DSO can be so much more detailed in the black skies that it pays handsomely to spend some time on these if your session allows for it. 

As you rightly state it is all about balance.

Steve

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When I was living in Ruislip with a SQI (On a good night) of 18.25 I planned a few holidays to darker locations and timed for the new moon. Since then I've retired and moved to a location that the LP map suggests is 21.66, and certainly I've seen the milky way structured and "glittering" right down to the southern horizon. I've also seen M33 naked eye, straight on and the Auriga clusters when I've surfaced to shut down my imaging, with my eyes dark adapted from my bedroom.

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4 hours ago, bomberbaz said:

The views of these brighter DSO can be so much more detailed in the black skies that it pays handsomely to spend some time on these if your session allows for it.

Very true. There was a thread in this recently, whether to look for new stuff or visit old favourites if under a pristine sky. I forget what I wrote 🤪 but certainly viewing known objects under a dark sky is well worth it as you say, to really see them properly.

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5 hours ago, Stu said:

My advice is, don’t give up on astronomy if you can’t get to a dark site regularly. Instead, modify your interests and targets to get the most out of it and take any chance possible to get under those darks skies when you can. It’s all a balance.

I couldn't agree with this more. A lot is made of the levels of light pollution in the UK, and for imagers this obviously is a problem. However, I only observe the moon, sun, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and on occasion, Venus and double stars. None of these are affected seriously by LP and observing only these objects does not detract from the pleasure of visual astronomy.

I do have the opportunity to visit some of the darkest skies imaginable. I don't know SQM value, but the nearest village is about 5 miles away, nearest city is more than a 100 miles away. Also, this place is shielded on all sides by mountains, is 2000+m ASL, and nowhere near any international flight paths. There is zero light pollution, as such, binoculars meet my expectations for deep sky viewing, which if this happens once every five years, that's good enough for me.

So, I guess the answer to the OP is; it depends on what you want to observe.

Edited by Roy Challen
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Being able to definitely have a few transparent nights of mag 21.5+ would be good. Starparties add a social element for when the clouds don’t part.

It seems a number of areas are working up  Dark Sky Status bids, where the area’s lighting has to be full cutoff and sensibly powered, which can only be a good thing, bring the darker skies closer and help to reduce degradation of the skies we have. I’m not going to have mag21 in my back garden, but having better closer would be welcome. 


peter

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I was lucky enough to do a trek to Kala Patthar in Nepal about 15 years ago. Not only were there so many stars you just got confused and couldn't easily recognise anything, at that height the stars didn't twinkle.

Unfortunately with a large full heavy rucksack on my back there was no chance of even a small pair of binoculars! Though I do remember being so utterly exhausted in the evenings I ashamedly only gave the stars a passing glance!

Malcolm

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1 hour ago, MalcolmM said:

I was lucky enough to do a trek to Kala Patthar in Nepal about 15 years ago. Not only were there so many stars you just got confused and couldn't easily recognise anything

Similarly to this, when I was in the darkest skies I’ve ever been to in Undara National Park, QL Aus, there were so many stars I really struggled to identify anything let alone constellations. Doubly difficult being Southern Hemisphere too! I’m not sure where I’d start with a scope in skies like that, I think small binoculars would be the best unless I had goto/push to. My Mk1 eyeball views of those skies still remain with me 20 years later mind.

Like @Stu & @Roy Challen have already posted, I’m very happy with the hobby particularly observing the planets, solar, lunar, binaries and the brighter objects, it fits my life circumstance right now. Maybe when I am a bit closer to retirement and don’t have a toddler smacking me in the face, I’ll seek out darker, local skies. I would like to see The Veil, M33 etc however I am more looking forward to observing Jupiter and Mars later this year!


 

Edited by IB20
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Wolverhampton A.S. have just had an observing weekend at a campsite in Shropshire where I could see M44 with naked eye so a lot better than the West Midlands hope some of my pics come out ok.

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I guess it depends on if you find it fun. Personally  I would find driving (I don’t like driving) more than 30mins to go to a dark site just for a night of observing all on my own too much like work. But I would if, for example, it also involved camping with a group of friends, family or meeting fellow astronomers. Others might disagree and find it enjoyable.

Last year we managed to go to a tiny place in Southern Crete. Bortle 2 and the sky was stunning. But it was all last minute, I had no idea what to expect and the moon was around for most of the time. Although I did take binoculars. We are going back there this year for a holiday. Now I’ve made sure we are going when the moon will be out of the way most of the time, I know what to expect and I’ll do some planning. Might even pack a travel telescope. However, I’m not going there because it’s dark. I’m going there because it’s a holiday with family plus friends, my wife likes the beach and my daughter likes it there too.

Incidentally, you can get a direct ferry to a small island not far away thats Bortle 1. But I doubt I’ll bother doing that unless I can get my whole family and friends to go along too - doubtful as there’s not much there. 

The mention of M44 reminds me. My back garden in Southampton is Bortle 7, although last yr ClearOutside had it as Bortle 8. Bortle 7 is probably more accurate. However, this time last year there were about 3 nights in a row when I could see M44 naked eye. And my eyes aren’t great. Some nights, even with light pollution, are better than others. I do find observing from my own garden fun. It’s a bit of…”wow… I can actually see that from my house”. 

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