Making Nepal a dark-sky destination

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Friday, October 25, 2013

The dark skies and dry air of Nepal, especially in the Himalayan Mountains, creates near-perfect astronomical observing conditions.  // NASA/ISS
Kiran Adhikari, a young astronomer and astronomy popularizer in Nepal, has noticed (as one would expect) a few things about his country: It’s high, it’s dry, it’s dark, and it’s populated in some pockets and not in others. That all bodes well for natural beauty in general, but it’s especially helpful for the natural beauty that’s above our heads. He’s also noticed that high, dry, and dark aren’t the global norm. Ask anyone on the American East Coast. So Adhikari thought perhaps East Coasters (and Midwesterners, Londoners, Ivory Coasters, and pretty much everyone with inferior skies) might like to come to Nepal on astro-tourism trips.

Adhikari is the founder and president of both the Nepal Physics Student Association and the Jamuna Keith Astronomy Research Center — impressive accomplishments for someone just 24 years old. He describes his idea below. Perhaps you have some ideas about how to help spread the word and bring the ideas to fruition. Perhaps you would be interested in a trip to the Himalayas. If so, hit us with the details in the comments, and get in touch with Adhikari at sunlightforce@gmail.com.

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Technically, stargazing should be easy. But with increasing pollution, seeing stars in most residential areas is becoming more and more difficult. In many urban areas, light pollution dims stars by comparison. The Moon may be the only astronomical object that many people ever see. As a result, astronomy enthusiasts around the world have an increasingly difficult time studying and tracking astronomical phenomena.

Throughout much of history, stars have been mankind’s first way of gaining knowledge about time, seasons, and other natural phenomena, as well as a source of spiritual guidance. Even though most humans do not maintain such an intimate connection with the stars anymore, many scientists and hobbyists would like to see more stars. This is where dark-sky destinations come in — places with minimum air and light pollution from which people can enjoy the beauty and knowledge that stars have to offer. Ever since Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve [link: http://www.darkskyalqueva.com/eng/] in Portugal was named the first Starlight Tourism Destination in 2011, specialized locations to view the sky have been popping up all over the developed world.

Nepal, a pristine land in more ways than one, is an ideal destination for such astro-tourism. According to international standards, any place where 1,500 stars or the plane of the Milky Way can be seen without optical aid qualifies as a dark-sky destination. Many locations in Nepal meet these standards. From Rara National Park in the Himalayan Mountains, for example, even Uranus is visible without special equipment. Because major swaths of Nepali land are not yet on a power grid, most of Nepal is free from light pollution. Even after the populated part of the country becomes completely electrified, large tracts of Nepal’s inhospitable northern regions are likely to be dark for a long time to come, keeping Nepal’s potential as a dark-sky destination alive for years.

The low air pollution in Nepal adds visual clarity, while Nepal’s altitude is an added advantage, as atmospheric molecules distort and absorb less light from the night sky.

Awareness of the need for dark-sky sites increased exponentially after 2009 was declared the International Year of Astronomy by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Worldwide, interest in books, movies, and other cultural products related to astronomy has surged, complemented by a corresponding surge in the sale of telescopes and other astronomical equipment. Nepal needs to capitalize on this moment by initiating astro-tourism in remote areas.

The tourism efforts can be concentrated around astronomical events like planetary conjunctions, eclipses, meteor showers, etc. But in fact, the dark skies and the knowledge they offer are a treat to people year-round. As elsewhere in Nepal, tourism will benefit the local population by developing infrastructure and opening up avenues for income generation. Astro-tourism has the additional potential of developing Nepal into a scientific research center. Easy access to the equipment to study sidereal phenomena may inspire Nepali youngsters to take up the field. Government investment in developing astro-tourism will bring a host of other benefits to the country.

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