To boost Astro-tourism, India announced that it is going to establish its first-night sky sanctuary in the Ladakh region in Himalayas. Here we explain what is a night sky sanctuary and what does it mean for people?
RH STAFF September 26
Earlier this month, India announced it will establish the country’s first-ever night sky sanctuary in its northern region of federally-controlled Ladakh. The move is aimed to boost Astro-tourism in the cold desert region bordering China.
According to officials, the sanctuary will be set up in the Hanle region of south-eastern Ladakh. The sanctuary will be carved out of Ladakh’s protected area of Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary.
A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) involving India’s federal government, Ladakh local administration, and the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), has been already signed in order to finalize the project. It’s likely to be completed by the end of this year.
What’s a night sky sanctuary?
Popularly known as Dark Sky Reserve, a night sky sanctuary is like any other protected area that offers a distinguished nocturnal environment and starry nights for the observatory and astronomical purposes. The reserve is particular about preventing any kind of artificial light pollution in the protected area.
US-based International Dark Sky Reserve Association defines a Dark Sky preserve as a “public or private land that has an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage and/or public enjoyment.”
The Dark Sky Sanctuaries are defined as “the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile.”
In 2015, Chile’s ‘Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary’ was recognized and designated as the first International Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world. Spread over an area of more than 35,000 hectares, the sanctuary is host to four major astronomical research facilities.
Across the globe, there are at least 20 dark sky reserves at present with seven of them in the United Kingdom alone.
Given Hanle’s vastness, sparse population, and clearer skies for the most part of the year, the decision to establish a night sky sanctuary in the region seems in line with the Indian government’s efforts to develop Ladakh for diverse tourism.
Already, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), an autonomous astrophysics and astronomy research institute funded by India’s central government, has an observatory facility located in Hanle. Sitting at an altitude of 4500 meters above sea level, the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) in Hanle is one of the world’s highest located observatories using optical, infrared, and gamma-ray telescopes.
At a distance of more than 250 kilometers southeast of Leh city, Hanle is also close to the China border. With tourists and researchers from across the globe expected to throng the dark sky preserve, the establishment of the unique sanctuary is also being linked with the ease in the border tension between two neighboring countries after the 2020 clashes.
What does it mean for people?
Declaring a protected area as a Dark Sky Reserve comes with its own sets of rules and regulations.
“There would be some restrictions during the evening and night to vehicles and headlights. There will be delineators on roads like you do outside observatories. People can come, park, observe the sky and stay in homestays,” Dr Annapurni Subramaniam, Director of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, told India’s leading national daily The Hindu.
In order to preserve the night sky within the sanctuary, it’s also imperative to reduce light pollution by reducing the usage of outdoor lighting by the common masses on their houses or other buildings. In other words, the lights, if used, should be directed towards the ground rather than towards the sky.