AN Australian state working to strengthen its standing in the space industry is also looking to the stars to boost tourism.
Environmentalists and astronomers are working up a case to have a vast tract of land just 120km from the South Australian capital Adelaide declared a Dark Sky Reserve.
If successful, the 2000sq km River Murray Dark Sky Reserve would become just the second officially sanctioned International Dark Sky Place in Australia and the fifth in the Southern Hemisphere.
The application comes at a time when South Australia is backing a Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) push for a national space program and an Australian Space Agency.
The state’s capital Adelaide is also preparing to host over 3000 delegates from around the world at the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in September 2017, which is hoped to be a catalyst for space industry growth in Australia.
More stars – including a better view of the Milky Way – can be seen in the southern skies than in the Northern Hemisphere.
The proposed Dark Sky Reserve’s sparse population, starry skies and clear nights have inspired the Mid-Murray Landcare Group to apply to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) in conjunction with Mid-Murray Council and the Astronomical Society of South Australia.
Light is measured on a scale of 0-22, where 22 is total darkness. Testing at the South Australian site, which is shadowed from the lights of Adelaide and the Barossa Valley by the Mount Lofty Ranges has so far returned results of up to 21.9.
Astronomical Society of South Australia light pollution officer Martin Lewicki said the early measurements compared favourably with some of the darkest sites around the world.
He said the area was also anecdotally known for its clear skies.
“They say the stars are so close you can touch them,” Lewicki, who also works as the educator at the Adelaide Planetarium, said.
“You can see between 2000 and 3000 stars – in the city you are lucky if you can see 200-300 stars with the naked eye.”
Lewicki said it was hoped tours could be organised to take visitors to the International Astronautical Congress to the site in September to experience the southern night sky.
“Being able to see the starry sky at night is what inspired us to wonder about the universe and there’s a long heritage that has led us to a space industry,” he said.
The night sky near Sedan, within the proposed River Murray Dark Sky Reserve. Picture: Andrew Cool.
“We’ve got a lot of people coming from the space industry to South Australia in September so this is a good time to promote the Dark Sky Reserve and we hope the State Government comes on board with it.”
Mid-Murray Landcare Acting Chairman Chris Tugwell said while there were probably darker places in Australia in remote Outback areas, the site’s location near existing tourist attractions such as the River Murray and within a 90-minute easy 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.
“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 is preparing the application to lodge with the IDA in September. He said he hoped to have some preliminary recognition before the end of the year.
“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.”
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.
The bulk of the 37 Dark Sky parks, reserves, sanctuaries and communities are in North America and Europe. Warrumbungle National Park in New South Wales was last year declared Australia’s first Dark Sky Park. However, its location 500km northwest of Sydney makes for a long six-hour journey by car.
South Australia has a long history in the space industry, which started when the Woomera Test Range was established in 1947 about 450km north of Adelaide.
The outback range is still used and last year launched an experimental rocket flight as part of a joint research program, HIFiRE (Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation Program).
In October 2016, South Australia and the Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI) agreed to jointly pursue space-related industries.
South Australian Minister for Defence Industries Martin Hamilton-Smith said at the time that South Australia led the way in the development of Australia’s space economy.
“Our vision is to position South Australia as a vibrant hub for future space activity and industry development,” he said.
Each year space experts from across the world meet at the University of South Australia’s Southern Hemisphere Space Studies Program in Adelaide to discuss challenges and opportunities on offer in the space industry.