How to See Fireballs From Outer Space and the Eclipse of a Lifetime
In Iceland alone, Northern Lights tourism has grown to be a billion-dollar industry. According to figures from the country’s tourism board, Iceland saw a whopping 33 percent year-over-year increase in winter visitation last year, and overall visitation to the country has more than doubled since 2010.
Maybe that’s just a reflection of travelers’ newfound desire to disconnect—there’s no better excuse for ignoring your boss’s email than watching vivid colors dance across the night sky. But if that’s what you’re after, then you’d be smart to consider these five other astronomical spectacles. Seeing them will offer next-level bragging rights—and vacations you’ll never forget.
The Lunar Eclipse of a Lifetime
Astronomy 101: A lunar eclipse takes place when the moon lines up perfectly with the Earth, and seemingly disappears behind its shadow.
American night sky aficionados are counting down to August 21, 2017, when the first total solar eclipse in 38 years will cross the United States. Weather forecasts are predicting that the best views will follow a track that stretches southeast from Madras, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina.
Clear skies are likeliest on the Pacific Coast, but Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm, the culinary resort in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, is our pick for where to stay—it’s a hotel worth planning entire trips around, and August is the resort’s most vibrant month. It’s when the on-site farm is at its peak, dinners are held at string-lit outdoor tables, and the country music lineup is at its most exciting. That it falls right in the path of the eclipse is icing on the cake.
For those in East Africa and Central Asia, an even rarer eclipse is expected for July 27, 2018.
Kait Parker, an atmospheric scientist at Weather Channel, says it will be the next time that “the moon takes on a blood red appearance that is visible to the naked eye.” Based on forecast maps created by NASA, the eclipse will be visible from huge swaths of Asia and Africa, but Madagascar will benefit from exceptional sky conditions.
Miavana, the country’s first five-star resort, will be open by then (it debuts this December), with programming that spans from lemur walks to whale watching.
The Southern lights
Astronomy 101: The southern hemisphere equivalent to the Northern Lights—they’re caused by the same type of collision between charged particles and the earth’s magnetic fields.
There’s a good reason that the Northern Lights are more popular than their southern counterpart: land access.
“While the northern hemisphere boasts plenty of land around the north pole, the southern hemisphere is primarily ocean,” explained Parker.
Visually, the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) and the Aurora Astralis (the Southern Lights) are similar, and a 2009 study published in Nature suggests that the two systems are almost identical, if not quite mirror images of one another. For both systems, variations in color are a result of the different gases that are present in the atmosphere; you can see flares of pink, purple, yellow, and green depending on how much nitrogen or oxygen is caught up in either system.
So what’s the real difference? Not a whole lot, it turns out, when you’re speaking strictly about the sky.
But a vacation in Iceland or Norway won’t come with penguin and elephant seal sightings, as it would in the Falklands. Instead of staying at one of the Falklands’ smaller hotels, make it part of an Antarctic cruise—or have the bespoke luxury operator Cox & Kings create a land-and-sea trip that gets the best of both worlds.
The Glittering Pleiades
Astronomy 101: This cluster of stars is one of the brightest in our solar system. It’s gradually burning off the gas and dust around it, creating a blue haze that’s visible to the naked eye.
Parker calls the Pleiades “one of the most easily viewed wonders in the night sky,” because it’s visible from, well, nearly anywhere. The star cluster, sometimes called The Seven Sisters, is at its brightest in November. So long as you’re in the northern hemisphere and are away from city lights, Parker says you can “see these ladies shining bright from dusk to dawn.”
Trout Point Lodge, a timber-framed resort with lakeside cottages and every imaginable creature comfort, has a perfect location for Pleiades hunters. It’s set in a remote corner of Nova Scotia, where the skies are clear enough to be their own attraction. The hotel publishes daily star forecasts, employs a full-time stargazing guide, and has an entire armory of telescopes and binoculars to make the stars feel not-so-faraway.
Meteor Showers and Fireballs
Astronomy 101: Shooting stars aren’t stars at all—they’re tiny rocks that enter the earth’s atmosphere so quickly that they burst into flames. Showers happen regularly and predictably as the earth passes through regions that are dense with debris.
“The Perseid meteor shower received quite a bit of attention in August of 2016, when you could see 200 meteors per hour for days at a time,” said Parker.
But to her estimation, that celestial party will be one-upped this fall by the Southern Taurids meteor shower, which is visible from Sept. 7 through Nov. 19 according to the American Meteor Society. The AMS pegs the peak dates as Oct. 9-10, but Parker says the day to look up in on Nov. 5, just after midnight. That’s when she says you’ll have the best chance at seeing fireballs, or meteors that burn brighter than Venus.
NASA tracks sightings of fireballs in the United States with a network of cameras that are concentrated along the southwest (near the Mexican border), in the deep South, and the Midwest. Follow their lead and book a stay at the Swag, a family-owned, all-inclusive luxury lodge that’s been newly upgraded to have outdoor showers in half of its 14 rooms.
Stargazing on Steroids
Astronomy 101: Light pollution is the biggest obstacle to stargazing, but some destinations take extra measures to create certified “dark sky reserves” for top-notch viewing conditions.
“If I could stargaze anywhere in the world, it would be in the Canary Islands just off of Morocco’s coast,” said the Weather Channel's Parker, who has traveled to remote locations like the Sahara Desert to gaze up at the night sky. “The island of Tenerife is so passionate about their incredibly clear skies at night that they have regulations to limit air traffic—so not to disturb the viewing.”
Tenerife is where the annual Starmus festival takes place each summer, with headline speakers like Stephen Hawking. “That’s totally on my stargazing bucket list,” said Parker.
Turn Parker’s dream trip into your personal reality with a stay at the Royal Garden Villas & Spa, which would be the island’s most popular five-star resort if it didn’t require a car to get into town. If crystal clear night skies are the reason you’re here, that remote-ness works in your favor—and the killer spa and golf course will keep you busy when that Canary sun is shining.