Utah is a good place to live for people hoping to observe the Milky Way or pick their favorite constellations out of the night sky without traveling far.
Earlier in January, the International Dark Sky Association designated three Utah state parks as International Dark Sky Parks: Jordanelle, Kodachrome Basin and Rockport. These new additions bring the total number of dark sky state parks in Utah to eight. Including national parks, Utah is home to a total of 21 dark sky places out of a list of 90 around the world.
People who visit Jordanelle State Park in Wasatch County on a cloudless night this month can get a clear view of the constellation Orion and the cluster of stars called the Pleiades, even though the park isn’t far off the highway. Go to Kodachrome Basin State Park near Cannonville if you want to gaze upon colorful stone spires as well as the heavens. And at Rockport State Park, a reservoir near Wanship, looking at the stars would pair nicely with some ice fishing.
Areas without light pollution aren’t just good for stargazing — they are also important for human health, according to David Kieda, an astronomer and co-director of the University of Utah’s Consortium for Dark Sky Studies, City & Metropolitan Planning. He said there is evidence that living in bright areas causes health conditions associated with the loss of circadian rhythm. He said residents of Salt Lake City’s west side are exposed to more light pollution than people living in wealthier areas.
Having dark skies is also good for the economy. Astrotourism is taking off across the state, according to Kieda. He said visitors will spend more time at parks and return to the state for more trips because of Utah’s impressive night skies.
Kieda said people have a natural affinity for night skies.
“We like to look up and wonder where [we] are and where [we] came from and where we’re going,” he said. “There’s a human value, so to speak, as well.”
Why does one state have so many dark sky areas compared to the rest of the world?
Gregory Smoak, a history professor and director of the American West Center at the University of Utah, said both natural and historic factors are at play.
He said Utah’s arid climate means there is less water vapor in the air as well as fewer clouds, creating optimal conditions for star-watching. Utah’s populations centers are heavily concentrated along the Wasatch Front, which leaves large swaths of open areas without light pollution, according to Smoak.
Smoak said the night sky is a spectacular thing to be able to see. He said the stars are important in many cultures, but many people aren’t able to see them because of light pollution.
“So many people around the world live in places now where that part of their existence has been obscured,” he said.
Another reason Utah has so many dark sky locations is because of a conscious effort by park officials to apply for the designation, said Smoak.
Getting the dark sky title is no simple feat. Justina Parsons-Bernstein, dark sky initiative coordinator for Utah State Parks, said the International Dark Sky Association has “arduous” criteria, resulting in applications that are about 100 pages long. Photos of the night sky and satellite maps of light pollution had to be included in the application.
To be considered for the designation, parks must have lights with warm bulbs that direct the light downward instead of up at the sky. Parks also have to host educational outreach activities about dark skies. Parsons-Bernstein said one of those activities this year was a virtual telescope viewing in partnership with the University of Utah where attendees got to learn about space.
She said visiting a park to observe the night sky is a good pandemic activity because it is outdoors and there’s no reason to get close to anyone outside of your household. She said focusing on the sky can be a relief from the turmoil on earth.
“You don’t need a fancy telescope, you can see so much just with your eyes,” she said.
Parsons-Bernstein said there are some free apps like Star Chart that can help people learn about what they are seeing in the night sky. Once the pandemic is over, park officials plan to host more in-person educational programs, she said.
Other dark sky parks in Utah include Dead Horse Point, Goblin Valley, Antelope Island, East Canyon and Steinaker. Parks are open for visitors, but people must wear masks while inside visitor centers and other indoor facilities. Masks must also be worn when it isn’t possible to put 6 feet between different households. People who feel sick should not visit state parks.
What should you look out for if you visit a dark sky park in the near future?
Paul Ricketts, observatory director at the University of Utah, said now is a good time to see Messier 42, also known as the Orion Nebula, which is a collection of gasses and dust over 1,300 light-years away that is slowly coalescing into new stars. Using a telescope, you can see the structure within the nebula and four massive blue stars within it. Mars and Uranus are also both visible this time of year.
If you want to wait until spring, Ricketts said there will be a meteor shower on April 21 and 22.
Correction • Jan. 27, 10:38 a.m.: The Orion Nebula is over 1,300 light-years away from Earth. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect distance.