New Zealand’s fourth biggest island has qualified as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, making it officially one of the best places in the world to gaze at the night sky.

Great Barrier Island, located 100km north-east of the country’s biggest city Auckland, has become the first island and only the third place in the world to be named as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. The two other sanctuaries are in the US and Chile.

“Sanctuary status is reserved for the most isolated and dark locations in the world, and this designation is specifically designed to increase awareness of fragile sites and promote their long-term conservation,” local board chairwoman Izzy Fordham said in a statement.

There is very little light pollution on the 85sq km  island as most of the 950 residents don’t have reticulated power and there are no traffic lights, supermarkets or ATMs.

“It’s like an immense glow worm grotto,” Fordham told Radio New Zealand. “You can see so many different stars, constellations, the Milky Way. It’s an absolute delight.”

dark sky sanctuary

Great Barrier Island is only the third place in the world to be named as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. Photo: dpa/Mark Russell/Sophi Reinholt

The residents on the remote island became more aware of their extraordinary bright night skies after the island’s Awana Rural Women group hosted a conference called “Is There Anybody Out There?” in September 2016.

The conference examined the possibility of extraterrestrial life and attracted international speakers including Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, known as the “Pope’s astronomer”.

dark sky sanctuary

There is very little light pollution on the 85sq km island. Photo: dpa/Mark Russell/Sophi Reinholt

It also attracted figures from the film industry, including Weta Digital’s creative arts director Gino Acevedo, who has worked on blockbusters such as Avatar and Planet of the Apes. Speakers discussed the possibility of aliens with the island’s residents.

The status has been granted by the US-based International Dark-Sky Association after it scientifically measured the darkness of the island’s sky and outdoor lighting standards.

A sanctuary differs from a Dark Sky Park or Reserve in that it is typically situated in a very remote location with few threats of light pollution nearby. – dpa