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Chilean Astronomical Site Becomes World’s First International Dark Sky Sanctuary

Chilean Astronomical Site Becomes World’s First International Dark Sky Sanctuary Image

Moonrise over the telescope domes on Cerro Tololo, with the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds visible and the Galactic Center rising. (Photo by Associated Universities for Research in Astronomy)

HONOLULU, Hawai’i (9 August 2015) – A sanctuary is a place that invites deep contemplation in a safe and stable environment. Few places in the world provide a better opportunity to enjoy and contemplate the starry heavens than Andean mountains of northern Chile. But even in this astronomy mecca lights can intrude to ruin the view, and thoughtful protection is needed as the nearby towns and cities grow in size.

Today, at the International Astronomical Union meeting, the International Dark-Sky Association announced that the site of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) Observatory in the Elqui Valley of northern Chile has been recognized and designated as the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world. The site will be known as the “Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary” after the famed Chilean poet.

“The Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary will serve as an example of how collaboration among governmental and non-governmental stakeholders can preserve one of the most special places on the planet”, IDA Executive Director J. Scott Feierabend said.

The new IDA designation category reflects the need for special protections for the world’s darkest places where nighttime conditions are exceptionally threatened. In certain cases, the public may be excluded from these sites in order to further important conservation priorities.

“Dark Sky Sanctuaries are the rarest and most fragile dark places left on the planet,” IDA Dark Sky Places Program Manager John Barentine explained. “The Sanctuaries designation fills a need for the recognition and protection of examples of how the world appeared before the introduction of electric lighting.”

Today’s announcement is the first instance in which a professional observatory has received IDA recognition for its dark-skies stewardship and provides a model for many other ground-based astronomical research facilities, where the protection of dark skies is critical to their research mission and to protecting decades or even a century old investment in research. AURA has worked closely with the Chilean government, which has passed a number of outdoor lighting regulations designed to save energy and preserve the night skies in Northern Chile.

Former AURA Observatory Director Dr. Malcolm Smith pointed out the benefits the facility brings to Chile. “The Observatory night skies are a resource that belongs to all Chileans as an important part of their heritage,” Smith said.

Ambassador Gabriel Rodriguez of the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs added “The Chilean government has prioritized the protection of the dark skies of northern Chile through both regulation and education, but more importantly through its recognition that Chile’s night skies are a natural resource to be preserved and passed on from generation to generation.”

The sanctuary site contains more than 35,000 hectares (90,000 acres) of mountainous terrain, and hosts four major research facilities: the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO, the southern branch of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory); the Gemini-South 8-m telescope; the 4-m Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) telescope; and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which is currently under construction. The AURA Observatory also hosts many smaller astronomical, atmospheric and geological research projects on the site.

Over the past 50 years, the U.S. and international partners have invested over a billion U.S. dollars in astronomical telescopes and advanced instruments on the AURA Observatory site, facilities that are planned to be operational for at least another five decades.

Securing the integrity of natural night at one of the most famous astronomical research sites in the world requires educating nearby communities and adopting good outdoor lighting practices. AURA Observatory in Chile has committed to a long-term program preserving these dark skies through a lightning management plan coupled with extensive education and public outreach efforts. The Chilean institution responsible for the protection of the quality of the night skies, the Oficina de Protección de Calidad de los Cielos (OPCC), is also involved.

The Dark Sky Sanctuary designation is only a beginning for the region. “If our collective efforts around the Elqui Valley are successful, we will have further protections for the incredible resource of Chile’s dark skies” said Dr. R. Chris Smith, director of the AURA Observatories in Chile. “Not only will this area attract further world-class professional observatories, it is becoming a world destination for eco-tourism with its incredible array of tourist-oriented observatories and night sky viewing sites.”

About the IDA Dark Sky Places Program

IDA established the International Dark Sky Places conservation program in 2001 to recognize excellent stewardship of the night sky. Designations are based on stringent outdoor lighting standards and innovative community outreach. Since the program began, 10 Communities, 26 Parks, nine Reserves and one Sanctuary have received International Dark Sky designations.  For more information about the International Dark Sky Places Program, visit darksky.org/night-sky-conservation/dark-sky-places.

About IDA

The International Dark Sky Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Arizona, advocates for the protection of the nighttime environment and dark night skies by educating policymakers and the public about night sky conservation and promoting environmentally responsible outdoor lighting. More information about IDA and its mission may be found at darksky.org.

About AURA

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) is a consortium of universities and other non-profit institutions that operates world-class astronomical facilities. As a leader in the astronomical community, AURA advances innovative astronomical research. In addition, AURA is deeply committed to public and education outreach to students and the community at large in a manner that broadens participation throughout the astronomical scientific workforce. More information about AURA and its programs can be found at www.aura-astronomy.org, and information about AURA Observatory in Chile may be found at www.aura-o.aura-astronomy.org

Media Inquiries

  • International Dark-Sky Association: Dr. John Barentine (IDA Dark Sky Places Program Manager) john@darksky.org; +1 520-293-3198
  • AURA Observatory in Chile: Camila Ibarlucea (Executive Assistant & Press contact), cibarlucea@aura-o.aura-astronomy.org; +56 51-2205217
  • AURA/NOAO Tucson: Dr. Stephen Pompea (National Optical Astronomy Observatory Public Information Officer) spompea@noao.edu; +1 520-318-8285

Additional Background

The Sanctuary is named after the Chilean Nobel prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral (b.1889 in Vicuña, Chile; d.1957, Hempstead, New York USA) who grew up in the Elqui Valley and whose poetry reflects a love and tenderness towards these wonderful skies. In Carro Del Cielo (Sky Car), she expressed these distinguished sentiments:

Lift up your face, child, and receive the stars. When you first look, they all pierce and freeze you, And then the sky begins to sway like a cradle they’re rocking, and you give yourself up wholly to be carried away, away.”

She was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1945. The Noble Prize was given “for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world”

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