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Only in Arizona: You haven’t really seen heavenly bodies until you’ve experienced remote parks and regions that cater to stargazers

It wasn’t until a road trip with my son last summer had I experienced a truly dark sky.

Like really dark. Phoenix at 3 a.m. times 20 dark. So dark you’ll never find the rental car until the morning, but at least we’re surrounded by, literally, billions of stars. I’m talking E.T. phone home dark.

Sonny and I geeked out on planets and constellations last June with a few dozen other space nuts at wildly remote Great Basin National Park in Nevada. Visible to the naked eye were five of the eight planets in our solar system, scores of man-made satellites, the unmistakable swirl of the Andromeda Galaxy and the cloudy ribbon of the Milky Way that contains our own galaxy — all because it was pitch-black.

We think seeing a few shooting stars and the Big Dipper are a big deal in Phoenix, but, because of light pollution we’re missing out, shortchanging our celestial experience. There’s a lot more out there.

In Arizona

So where do we go in Arizona to really see stars? Are there “dark skies” near us?

“Arizona has been a preferred location for astronomers, professional and amateurs, since the early 1900s,” said Mike Weasner of the Oracle Dark Skies Committee, which worked to receive dark-sky status in 2014 for Oracle State Park by the International Dark-Sky Association. “(This is) due to generally good weather and the mountains to get above the thicker portion of the atmosphere.”

Oracle State Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Wupatki National Monument and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument are four IDA-designated “dark sky” parks in the state, meaning the sites actively practice responsible lighting policies and public education.

Broader dark-sky communities include Sedona, the Village of Oak Creek and Flagstaff, the world’s first IDA dark-sky city and home of the world-renowned research facility at the Lowell Observatory.

Also suited for stargazing

But there also are other non-IDA sites well suited to stargazing. Kitt Peak National Observatory southwest of Tucson operates 24 optical and two radio telescopes, making it one of the most important sites for astronomy in our state. The place feels like X-Files meets ASU. Behind the tours and school groups, there’s some serious science going on.

Same with Mount Graham International Observatory near Safford, which is an astrophysical research facility managed by the University of Arizona and home of The Vatican’s Advanced Technology Telescope.

International Dark-Sky Association

3223 N. First Ave., Tucson


Protecting dark skies

The protection of truly dark night skies “is not only important to astronomers, both professional and amateur,” Weasner said, “it is also important to protecting human health, wildlife, environment, reducing wasted energy costs, climate and cultural heritages.”

“And, while this is surprising to some, protecting the night sky also enhances our safety and security,” he said.

So we can watch the watchers. Think I’ll just keep an eye toward the stars.

Contact “Only in Arizona” columnist Mark Nothaft at [email protected]. Send him the weird and fun facts and places found #OnlyInArizona.

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