IT is estimated that 80 per cent of the world’s population can no longer see the Milky Way - the great band of billions of stars which cuts across the night sky. In parts of the UK, in particular urban areas, visibility of any stars is reduced to a mere handful, so washed out is the sky by humanity’s relentless illuminations.

But in parts of Ryedale, including much of the North York Moors, the night sky has a redoubt. Here, on clear nights, a sky full of stars can be observed, and the Milky Way - our home galaxy, named by the ancient Greeks for its pale luminosity - can still be made out.

So it’s fitting that the moors is one of the National Parks set to hold a Dark Skies Festival, starting this Friday and running through until March 3.

As in previous years, the festival takes the shape of a series of events at locations across the moors, as well as venues like Castle Howard.

There are stargazing parties, physics lectures, night walks, photography workshops. The huge list of events has something for everyone. There are “owl prowls” to look for the nocturnal predators, ghost walks around some of the National Park’s oldest towns, and a chance to go on the GoApe zipwire after dark.

This year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, there will be something of a moon focus to the events. The first few days of the festival will coincide with the second supermoon of the year, due to appear in the sky on February 19.

It will also see the first UK screenings of a documentary entitled Saving the Dark. Released in the US last year, the documentary draws attention to the impact of excessive and improper lighting, which not only robs people of the night skies but disrupts sleep patterns and endangers the nocturnal habitats of wildlife.

After each screening, visitors will be treated to a stargazing session.

Richard Darn, an astronomer who is helping run some of the festival’s events, said that last year, all the events sold out. “It suggests there’s this really deep interest,” he said.

But why are people drawn to the night sky?

“Everybody gets something different from it,” said Richard. “For some people it’s a way of unwinding. For others it’s about the beauty, for others it’s about the science.”

He added that stargazing is egalitarian. “Starry skies are completely free. It’s one of those things that’s for everybody.”

He himself got involved in the 1990s, watching the skies over Dalby forest to unwind.

People will come to the Dark Skies Festival from far and wide; it’s easy to forget that, for many people, the night sky has simply been bleached out of existence. This presents real opportunities for businesses on the moors for “astro-tourism”, and Richard has given workshops to businesses on how to capitalise on this.

“You’d be surprised where people come from,” said Richard. “They are prepared to travel. They simply can’t see many stars where they are. They don’t know there’s a universe out there. The starlight is being washed away by this tide of light pollution.

“If you come from parts of West or South Yorkshire or Teesside you’ve lost all this. It’s all gone. We treat light like we treated plastic. We just throw it away.”

He suggests that, in Leeds, when 15 to 20 stars may be visible, several thousand may fill Ryedale skies on the same night.

But that also means that the night sky is something that requires preserving. People need to be smarter with outdoor lights. They should be sensibly targeted and judiciously placed, perhaps linked to a motion sensor, and of a slightly dimmer variety.

The Dark Skies Festival is celebratory and educational but most of all it’s fun, Richard added. People of all ages can go to the events.

And beyond the festival, work is being done to ensure the moors stay dark. For the past year, light levels have been monitored on clear nights at various sites across the National Park. Gradually, and for the first time, a body of good data is being built up. Eventually this will mean that light pollution can be mapped and measured - so in twenty years time, we’ll know if things have gotten better or worse.

For now though, the Dark Skies Festival is chock-full of opportunities to learn more about the treasure trove above us. It can still be seen, and that’s worth celebrating.

A number of the events are already sold out. To see a full list of events, go to