Star rating shines light into one of the world’s darkest corners
One of the darkest places on Earth within easy reach of a modern city has been officially recognised by the International Dark Sky Association.
The 2300sq km River Murray Dark Sky Reserve has become just the second officially sanctioned International Dark Sky Place in Australia and has been recognised as ‘Gold Standard’ because of its near pitch black conditions.
The South Australian site is shadowed from the lights of the state capital Adelaide and the Barossa Valley by a ridge running north-south called the Mount Lofty Ranges.
A core site near the centre of the reserve is being developed at the Swan Reach Conservation Park while some events will still be held at the more established Meldanda campground, near the town of Cambrai, on the western side of the area.
The site is just 120km (75 miles) and an easy 90-minute drive from Adelaide, which has recently established itself as the home of Australia’s space industry.
More stars — including a better view of the Milky Way — can be seen in southern skies than in the Northern Hemisphere.
Light is measured on a scale of 0–22, where 22 is total darkness. Recent testing at Swan Reach Conservation Park returned a result of 21.99.
The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, in comparison, has average readings of 21.4 according to it’s application in 2016.
Mid Murray Landcare Group lodged an interim application with IDSA in late 2017 before submitting its final proposal in May. An official announcement is being made today in the reserve, which straddles Australia’s largest river, The Murray.
ASSA President Paul Haese said the Dark Sky recognition was fantastic for the state.
He said the darkness readings were so good at the site that it was considered “Gold Standard” for Dark Sky Reserves and much darker than what was typically experienced at similar parks in the Northern Hemisphere
“As far as the Astronomical Society is concerned, our goal is to preserve the night sky from light pollution and this reserve really goes a long way to doing that,” Haese said.
“It gives the opportunity for people to travel a relatively short distance from Adelaide and be able to see the night sky for what it really is.
“I’m absolutely certain that as momentum builds and word gets around that people will start coming into the area and it will add an astro-tourism aspect to the River Murray.”
Mid Murray Landcare Chairman Chris Tugwell said the site’s location near existing tourist attractions such as the River Murray and within an easy 90-minute drive of a major city made it an ideal tourist destination.
“The advantage we have is that we are really close to Adelaide and because of the shading from the Mount Lofty Ranges it is actually incredibly dark,” he said.
“The sky is also very clear so it makes it a very good place for people to set up telescopes and look at the sky.”
An International Dark Sky Reserve can be on public or private land and must possess an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment.
There are about 15 Dark Sky Reserves in the world with the only two in the Southern Hemisphere located in New Zealand and Namibia. There are also dozens of generally smaller Dark Sky Parks, mainly in North America.
Warrumbungle National Park in New South Wales was declared Australia’s first Dark Sky Park in 2016. However, its location 500km northwest of Sydney makes for a long six-hour journey by car.
About 200–300 stars can typically be seen in Southern Hemisphere urban areas whereas an estimated 2000–3000 can be seen from the South Australian reserve.
“It’s sort of like World Heritage listing for the night sky and anyone who lives out there knows how incredible it is so we’re just trying to take advantage of that,” Tugwell said.
“Light pollution is a real problem around the world and there are cities in the Northern Hemisphere where you can’t see any stars at all — so there are people who have never seen the stars and we’re hoping that some of them will come down here to have a look at ours.”
South Australia also has a strong link with space. Late last year Adelaide was announced as the home of the Australian Space Agency, to which a $6 million Mission Control Centre for small satellite missions and an educational Discovery Centre was added in March. It has also been a significant player in the nation’s space industry and is home to major Tier 1 defence companies and several emerging space start-ups, including Fleet Space Technologies, Inovor Technologies and Myriota.