The Biggest, Darkest Sky in Australia

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter based in Melbourne.

This week, I went looking for darkness.

For the past several days, I have been reporting for The Times in Western Australia with the photojournalist Matthew Abbott. Western Australia is the country’s largest and least populated state, with around 2.7 million people scattered across an area the size of Alaska, California and Texas combined. More than three-fourths of its residents live in Perth, the state capital.

Australians from other states know Western Australia for its remarkable wealth of natural resources, including iron ore, natural gas, gold, alumina and nickel. But there is another natural resource that Western Australia, huge and empty, has in abundance: pristine dark sky.

Darkness seems like something that ought to be easy to find, lingering outside the back door late at night, or creeping up to greet us at the end of the day. But people are all too good at keeping it at bay, with floodlights, streetlights, headlights and so many other kinds of lights all eating into the clarity of the night sky. (And let’s not even start on the brightly illuminated phone screens that draw our attention like moths to a flame.)

The darkness of the night sky is measured on a scale known as the Bortle Dark Sky Scale, which runs from 1 to 9. You can see the severity of light pollution in your area on maps like this one, where brightly lit metropolitan areas glow red and white like molten iron, and the blue glow of fading light pollution leaches offshore and into the sea.

My own neighborhood in Melbourne scores between 8 and 9, the worst possible score. Practically speaking, this means the Milky Way is typically invisible. That puts me among the people on Earth, a third of our planet’s population, who are unable to see the galaxy in which we live.

For most residents of the European Union and the United States, light pollution is so extensive that, technically speaking, what scientists know as “night” never really comes.

“Light pollution sneaks up on you,” Carol Redford, who runs Astrotourism Western Australia. “It is a pollution that just inches along and you don’t really realize you’re losing the sight of the stars — until it’s too late.”

Redford would like Western Australia’s big dark sky to become a sought-after tourism asset, like the Great Barrier Reef or Antarctica’s ice caps. “People will say around the world, ‘That’s where you go to see the Milky Way,’” she said. “That’s as long as we can keep the light pollution down.”

And so, returning from reporting an article on Tuesday night, I suggested to Matt that we head out and look for stars.

We piled into our rented Toyota Hilux pickup and drove for about 20 minutes from our hotel in Karratha, past the gas fields and industrial parks that had been lit up like stadium tours, and deeper into the outback, stopping at a scrubby patch of ground off the main road.

With few cars on the road, my eyes had begun to adjust to the darkness — and so, when we got out of the truck and I climbed onto the back, I was struck by just how many stars I could see at once, sketching out the seeming outline of the whole universe.

In fact, it wasn’t all that dark. Domes of light were still visible on the horizon, and even miles away, the glare of floodlights from the industrial park was still piercing and bright. (When vehicles did roll past, I buried my face in the crook of my elbow, to avoid being shocked by their headlights.)

But even at a Bortle level 4, connoting “mild to moderate levels of light pollution,” the stars spilled across the sky, with more and more sliding into view as my eyes began to adjust to the dark. As a city kid, I had the distinct sense of being in a planetarium — except much, much more so.

As the minutes passed, the Milky Way came gradually into view. The three studs of Orion’s Belt sparkled like jewels. The Southern Cross reminded me where we were, down at the bottom of the Earth.

And then, out of nowhere, a shooting star.

Here are the week’s stories.

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