Thursday, April 16th 2020, 6:06 pm - This tiny island nation has some of the most pristine night skies in the world
There are many 'dark sky places' around the world, where stargazers can catch an unspoiled view of the night sky. Now, for the very first time, the International Dark-Sky Association has declared an entire nation as a dark sky place.
Niue is a small island in the South Pacific Ocean, roughly 15 kilometres wide by 25 kilometres long, and with a population of just over 1,600 people. Its nearest neighbours include Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu, but these are all hundreds of kilometres away.
Niue's location mapped out with the local "island neighborhood". Credit: NASA Earth Observatory
Now, this tiny nation can boast something that none of its more famous neighbours can. With the IDA designating the entire island as a Dark Sky Place, it is now a prime location for astro-tourism!
"The people of Niue are understandably proud and delighted to receive such an important acknowledgment from the International Dark-Sky Association. To be the first whole country to become a dark sky nation is a massive accomplishment for a small Pacific nation with a population of just over 1,600," Felicity Bollen, the CEO of Niue Tourism, said in an IDA press release. "The stars and night sky have a huge significance to the Niuean way of life, from a cultural, environmental and health perspective. Being a dark sky nation will help protect Niue's night skies for future generations of Niueans and visitors to the country."
This image of Niue was captured on November 5, 2019, by the Landsat 8 satellite. Credit: USGS/NASA Earth Observatory
Becoming a Dark Sky Nation is no easy task. Even a population of 1,600 people can still produce significant light pollution, as people (and their light sources) tend to be grouped together into villages, towns and cities. This concentration of light sources amplifies their impacts, making these areas collectively brighter, and making a larger contribution to light pollution.
Although lights in our communities illuminate our homes, businesses and streets, giving us access to the night to continue our busy lives, there's a down-side to all that light. Light pollution is a term used for any unwanted light, and it is specifically used to discuss the effect artificial light sources has on our ability to view the night sky.
Look up into the night from the core of a densely populated city and you may only see one or perhaps two or three bright objects there - most likely the Moon, and perhaps Venus, Mars or Jupiter. The stars and constellations are almost impossible to pick out. The farther you venture out, away from the city, the veil of light pollution falls away, revealing the details of the night sky. More and more stars become visible, and eventually we can even clearly see the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon.
WATCH BELOW: WHAT LIGHT POLLUTION IS DOING TO CITY VIEWS OF THE MILKY WAY
It only takes simple, fairy inexpensive changes to ensure that we keep light pollution under control and preserve the night sky. The International Dark-Sky Association has guides on these changes, as does the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
So, how did Niue achieve this first ever Dark Sky Nation designation?
According to NASA's Earth Observatory: "Niue's geographic isolation is certainly helpful for limiting light pollution from outside its borders. But artificial lights still illuminate the homes, businesses, and streets for more than 1,600 people living on the island. To become a dark sky nation — and maintain a pristine view of night sky features like the Milky Way — a team of amateur astronomers collaborated with the island's government and residents to replace conventional lighting with dimmer, more orange-hued LEDs."
The amateur astronomers that helped the island apply for status as a Dark-Sky Sanctuary were Richard and Gendie Somerville-Ryan, a New Zealand couple who had previously helped Great Barrier Island achieve that same status.
"Niue has an established ethos and record of environmental conservation and protection," Richard Somerville-Ryan said in the IDA press release. "The journey to protect the nation's pristine night skies began in mid-2018 when we were delighted to form a small project team with Niue Tourism who understood the positive impact this initiative could have for Niue and its people. We then began to share our excitement about the quality of the island's dark sky with the wider community."
How does one get to Niue, now, to celebrate its newfound status? Apparently, once we can begin travelling again, you can catch one of the two flights from Auckland, New Zealand that leave each week. The best time to take the trip, according to NASA, is between June and August. That is when their satellites capture the least amount of clouds in the Niuean skies.