Apply for Dark Sky Place certification
The main hub for what you need to know about applying for International Dark Sky Place certification.
The International Dark Sky Places Program is a conservation-based program rooted in grassroots advocacy to protect dark skies and the nocturnal environment. The program is structured around a rigorous set of guidelines to ensure that each certified place participates in actions and stewardship that improve the quality of the nightscape environment.
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How certification works
Similarly, the International Dark Sky Place certification functions more as an award and provides international recognition for the applicant’s efforts, as it does not carry any legal or regulatory authority from DarkSky International itself. Participating in the program is voluntary, and sites are nominated rather than being selected by DarkSky. With this program, DarkSky seeks to commemorate the efforts of communities and places around the world that demonstrate the best practices for protecting night skies and the nocturnal environment.
Dark Sky Place certification almost always begins with a small group of individuals who organize to seek formal protection of their nightscape. Interested applicants establish a connection with DarkSky staff to confirm they are a quality candidate. Once approved, the applicant and DarkSky staff work together to complete the written application that meets all of the requirements for one of the five certification categories.
Once a nomination is deemed to be complete by DarkSky International staff, it is submitted to the external Dark Sky Places Committee (DSPC) for the final review and endorsement. The committee is made up of leading experts in the field, such as scientists, past applicants, and nonprofit professionals. The committee judges the quality of the application and assesses whether the nomination will be awarded the official certification.
We offer five categories under the certification program. Candidates are qualified based on management, location, nighttime public access, resources, and night sky quality. The five certifications are grouped into two categories:
1. Conservation approach
These pristine dark areas provide visitors access to the natural, cultural, and historical resource that is the night sky. Typical nighttime conditions characterizing the site must be consistent with or exceed the following criteria:
- The Milky Way is readily visible to the unaided eye.
- There are no nearby artificial light sources yielding significant glare.
- Any light domes present are dim, restricted in extent, and close to the horizon.
2. Built environments
While these sites do not necessarily provide dark skies, they do provide genuine nighttime experiences that are brought about with the use of effective lighting policies and community-friendly lighting. These certifications award Places for their dedication to using light only when it is necessary and creating an environment where people can feel safe in a public space at night. These actions further reduce excessive and wasteful light pollution from seeping into nearby protected areas that depend on natural darkness.
Use this chart to determine whether a site is eligible for one of our certifications.
A breakdown of the main eligibility criteria for each place category is provided below. More detail can be found within the respective Guidelines document.
International Dark Sky Sanctuaries
A public or private land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment, and that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. A Sanctuary differs from an International Dark Sky Park or Reserve in that it is typically situated in a very remote location with few (if any) nearby threats to the quality of its dark night skies and does not otherwise meet the requirements for designation as a Park or Reserve.
Management — May be publicly or privately owned, but the applicant must demonstrate how the site is legally protected (see FAQ below).
Nighttime public access — The Sanctuary must provide the opportunity for public nighttime access (see FAQ below), with or without supervision. A portion of designated land may meet this requirement, or access may be available for a fraction of the length of the night. In some cases, such as when working with areas that protect endangered wildlife, archaeological sites, or other sensitive resources, this requirement may be waived or adjusted to meet important conservation goals.
Night sky quality — The Sanctuary must provide an exceptional dark sky resource where the night sky brightness at the zenith is routinely equal to or darker than (greater than) 21.5 magnitudes per square arcsecond in the visual band and where significant light domes are not present toward the local horizon in any direction.
Resources — The typical geographic isolation of Sanctuaries significantly limits opportunities for public outreach, so these sites are specifically designed to increase awareness of these fragile sites and promote their long-term conservation. Sanctuaries lack infrastructure (e.g., visitor centers, lofty accommodations) that may be found in a Park and are not adjacent to major roadways or commercial transportation. Instead, Sanctuaries are expected to provide ample external communications and educational opportunities to interact with its visitors.
International Dark Sky Reserves
A combination of public or private lands of substantial size (at least 700 square kilometers, or about 173,000 acres) possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment, and which is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. The Reserve is formed through a partnership of landowners and/or administrators that recognize the value of the natural nighttime environment through regulations, formal agreements, and long-term planning.
The Reserve consists of two regions:
- A “core” area meeting the minimum criteria for sky quality and natural darkness
- A “peripheral” or “buffer” area that supports dark sky values in the core and receives similar benefits
Eligibility criteria — Core
Management — May be publicly or privately owned, but the applicant must demonstrate how the site is legally protected.
Nighttime public access — The core must provide the opportunity for public nighttime access, with or without supervision. A portion of designated land may meet this requirement, or access may be available for a fraction of the length of the night.
Night sky quality — Cores are, by their nature, situated in proximity to gateway communities, which may impact areas of the core’s night sky quality. To meet DarkSky’s definition of dark skies, the core must demonstrate that the Milky Way is visible on a typical night. These conditions correspond approximately to a visual-band zenith luminance of 21.2 magnitudes per square arcsecond or greater and a naked eye limiting magnitude (NELM) of +6.
Location — The core zone boundaries must be drawn according to, and consistent with, the following principles:
- A core area does not have a minimum area requirement but must provide sufficient area to meet the outreach and public access requirements described in the Guidelines.
- The proposed core area boundary may take any shape and may follow logical or natural geographic features.
- The core need not be a single, contiguous piece land; up to three cores may be defined, but this approach must be justified in the application document.
- If the core includes a publicly protected area, such as a national or regional park, it must strive to fully encompass the boundaries of that area.
Resources — The core must be able and willing to commit to regular outreach efforts, external communications to educate both visitors and periphery communities about dark skies and light pollution, and meeting the 67%, 90%, and 100% lighting compliance rate timeline. It is strongly recommended for the Reserve to build a steering committee of key partners to organize efforts at the landscape scale.
Eligibility criteria — Periphery
Management — At least 80% of the total population and 80% of the land area within the proposed peripheral area must participate in the Reserve efforts. This includes communities; regional governmental areas such as counties, districts, and municipalities; and publicly and privately owned managed areas. Participation includes adopting a quality comprehensive Lighting Management Plan or Policy (LMP) that applies to all private and public landowners within the area of protection.
Nighttime public access — The emphasis for public access is focused on the dark core area, but other areas throughout the Reserve are welcome to encourage nighttime viewing experiences.
Night sky quality — There are no night sky requirements for the periphery. However, the Reserve should plan on monitoring night sky quality throughout the periphery to assess changes in this resource, especially with community participation to further protect the core area with its lighting choices.
Location — The peripheral zone boundaries must be drawn according to, and consistent with, the following principles:
- The proposed peripheral zone boundary must be singular and contiguous, and must completely enclose the core zone. It may take any shape and may follow logical or natural geographic features.
- The peripheral area (including the core) must encompass a minimum of 700 square kilometers (270 square miles or 173,000 acres), roughly equivalent to a circle of 15-km (9.3-mi) radius, or a land area sufficient to mitigate 80% of current and expected future light pollution threats to the core.
- Large areas of open water, such as oceans, bays, and larger lakes, do not count toward the 700-square-kilometer / 80% requirement.
- The boundaries of neither core nor periphery must be arbitrarily drawn to omit areas that would increase the difficulty of achieving the Reserve status, but must instead embrace these areas as an opportunity for improvement.
Resources — Participating communities must have a program, through education, economic incentives, permitting, or regulation, to encourage all new outdoor lighting fixtures to conform to the relevant regulation or guidelines for night sky friendly lighting.
Communities must have a number of examples of conforming lighting installations proportional to the size of the population they serve, both on roadways and on different private sites.
Those entities interested in applying as a Reserve must identify the core and periphery areas in their inquiry, and must provide detailed maps showing the boundaries of these proposed areas. Inquiries that need additional guidance in selecting these areas and partners are encouraged to reach out to DarkSky Program staff with some preliminary suggestions as to where and how they want to build the Reserve.
International Dark Sky Parks
A land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment, and which is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, or educational value, its cultural heritage, and/or for public enjoyment. The land may be publicly or privately owned, provided that the landowner(s) consent to the right of permanent, ongoing public access to specific areas included in the DarkSky certification.
Management — May be publicly or privately owned, but the applicant must demonstrate how the site is legally protected.
Nighttime public access — The Park must provide the opportunity for public nighttime access, with or without supervision. A portion of designated land may meet this requirement, or access may be available for a fraction of the length of the night.
Night sky quality — Parks may be situated in proximity to gateway communities, which may impact areas of the Park’s night sky quality. To meet DarkSky’s definition of dark skies, the site must demonstrate that the Milky Way is visible on a typical night. These conditions correspond approximately to a visual-band zenith luminance of 21.2 magnitudes per square arcsecond or greater and a naked eye limiting magnitude (NELM) of +6.
Resources — The Park must be able and willing to commit to regular outreach efforts — external communications to educate the public about dark skies and light pollution — and provide at least one leadership example in the restoration of dark skies.
How to determine whether a site should apply as a Park or a Sanctuary — Parks and Sanctuaries differ not only in night sky quality but also in the resources and experiences they provide to their visitors. Some Parks may have pristinely dark skies and offer magnificent views of the stars, yet they still have the infrastructure and resources to provide outreach events and quality lighting retrofit projects. Sanctuaries typically lack those resources due to their remote location. Instead, they provide a more authentic dark and quiet experience — like that which humans encountered before the presence of modern amenities.
International Dark Sky Communities
A town, city, municipality, or other legally organized community (such as urban neighborhoods and subdivisions) that has shown exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of quality lighting policies, dark sky education, and citizen support of the ideal of dark skies.
Management — The Community will coordinate with the local level of authority to write and adopt a lighting policy. Unincorporated or otherwise informally organized communities are eligible for Community status if their governing jurisdictions enact public policy consistent with the requirements of the Community Guidelines and which are legally binding in at least the territory of the community.
Nighttime public access — Outreach events are made available to both residents and visitors to the Community.
Night sky quality — There are no night sky quality requirements for a Community. However, the Community will still participate in monitoring night sky quality to assess changes in this resource and as a way to further drive community engagement.
The Community demonstrates its commitment to dark skies and quality lighting by:
- Retrofitting all publicly owned lighting within five years
- Encouraging residents and businesses to participate in the dark sky movement with the use of, for example, flyers, events, informative websites, public service announcements, and funding of lighting upgrades
- Providing examples of success in light pollution control with private lighting or new development
- Presenting opportunities to learn about and engage with the night sky
Urban Night Sky Places
A municipal park, open space, observing site, or other similar property (hereafter, “Place”) near or surrounded by large urban environs and whose planning and design actively promote an authentic nighttime experience in the midst of significant artificial light. By virtue of their characteristics, these sites do not qualify for designation within any other International Dark Sky Place category. However, they are worthy of recognition for their efforts to educate the public on the benefits of proper outdoor lighting that ensures public safety while minimizing potential harm to the natural nighttime environment.
Management — May be publicly or privately owned. Additionally, the managing agency of the Place should be readily identifiable to visitors.
Location — All of the following must be met to be considered as a quality Urban Night Sky Place candidate:
- An eligible Place must be located within the boundaries of or the region enclosed by a perimeter extending 50 km (31 mi) beyond the edge of the continuously built area of a municipality with a permanent population of 10,000 or more people within its territorial jurisdiction.
- The specific urban community that is impacting the Place’s night sky quality must be easily identified, most notably through the use of nighttime horizon photography demonstrating visible light domes.
- The geographic situation and/or landscaping of the place must be sufficient to mitigate the effects of any glare or light trespass from outdoor lighting on immediately adjacent properties. If external sources of light cause glare and impact nighttime visibility within the Place, the applicant will be directed to collaborate with the owner of the source to make changes that improve the nightscape.
- The entire land area owned by the management agency must be included in the Urban Night Sky Place application. Portions of a site will not be accepted.
Nighttime public access — The Place must provide the opportunity for public nighttime access, with or without supervision. A portion of designated land may meet this requirement, or access may be available for a fraction of the length of the night.
Night sky quality — The Place’s nighttime sky does not meet DarkSky’s definition of dark skies and does not meet the night sky quality cutoff to apply as an International Dark Sky Park. While there is no minimum night sky requirement for Urban Night Sky Place candidates, sites must demonstrate that they provide a quality nighttime experience to their visitors.
- The place and/or its partner organizations must engage visitors with direct interpretation of the value of natural nighttime darkness and the importance of quality outdoor lighting practices.
- The Place must commit to 100% dark sky friendly lighting. If the site does not have any existing fixtures, they may supplement this requirement with additional examples of outreach and education.
Each certification category has its own set of Guidelines (see table below) with the complete set of rules and requirements to establish and ensure night sky conservation for each of the five International Dark Sky Place categories.
The Checklists, also provided via the table below, are supplementary documents to help applicants address the requirements and organize the materials needed for a complete application.
|International Dark Sky Sanctuaries
|International Dark Sky Reserves
|International Dark Sky Parks
|International Dark Sky Communities
|Urban Night Sky Places
Additional resources for applicants
The entire process takes, on average, one to three years from initial inquiry to the certification. The process can be broken down into three major phases, outlined in this graphic.
Because a site’s conditions and challenges can vary widely, there is no “template” for applications. However, examples of successful past applications can be used as models to follow and are available on the Communities, Parks, Reserves, Sanctuaries, and Urban Night Sky Places pages.
Phase 1: Initial inquiry
Average timeline: 45 days
This phase establishes the site’s intentions to apply to the program and creates a relationship with DarkSky Places program staff. It is strongly suggested that an inquiry be submitted early on in the application process so that DarkSky staff can track progress and guide your efforts throughout development. Having a file in DarkSky’s management system will also enable access and support from our global Advocate Network. Sites are not considered active applicants in the International Dark Sky Places program until they submit the pre-application inquiry, pass the eligibility check by DarkSky staff, and submit the one-time application fee.
Step 1: Review International Dark Sky Place materials. DarkSky provides information on everything regarding what makes a quality candidate, the expectations and benefits from applying to the program, and guides on how to complete the technical requirements of the application.
Step 2: Make contact with the site’s administration and garner broad community support. If you are interested in applying as an International Dark Sky Community, make contact with your mayor and council, let them know you are interested in obtaining this designation for the city, and ask for their support. Part of that will involve assessing current city ordinances concerning outdoor lighting and making sure they are in compliance with industry best practices and are “dark sky friendly.” For non-Community applicants, the same applies to the superintendent, board, management agency, or owner of the site.
All applications will need a formal nomination from a DarkSky member in good standing and letters demonstrating broad community support. Begin reaching out to, for example, local officials, businesses, and nonprofits who may write letters endorsing the idea of becoming an International Dark Sky Place. Search the Advocates page for nearby Delegates and Chapters who could offer support during the application process.
Step 3: Fill out the pre-application inquiry form. Follow the link at the bottom of this page to submit a pre-application inquiry form.
The inquiry form will need to contain all of the following:
- A clear idea of which certification you are seeking
- Detailed map(s) showing the proposed site or community boundaries and other relevant information (such as identifying the management agency, restricted areas, and conservation easements for private properties) with a legend
- A description of the nighttime experience, such as visible stars, the Milky Way, and any light domes on the horizon
- A description of dark sky actions taken thus far, if applicable
Note — If the site sits at the cusp of one of the eligibility criteria, DarkSky staff may request more information and materials to continue their assessment.
Step 4: DarkSky staff complete the eligibility check and provide further direction. The Dark Sky Places Program Associate will respond within 30 days with their assessment of the eligibility check. They may request additional information to confirm the site is a quality candidate for the program. In addition, they will explain all of the requirements of the selected place category to ensure that the applicant is fully aware of the program expectations.
Step 5: Submit the application fee. Once both DarkSky staff and the applicant understand the scope of the project, DarkSky staff will then invite the applicant to formally apply to work on their application through the International Dark Sky Places program by requesting the submission of the non-refundable application fee.
Phase 2: Formal application
Average timeline: one to three years, depending on certification type. Sanctuaries, Parks, and Urban Night Sky Place applications can be more straightforward, while Communities and Reserve applications require more time to allocate the necessary components.
This phase comprises the bulk of the efforts as the applicant works to accumulate the necessary information to compile a complete application. Certain requirements, such as outreach and night sky monitoring efforts, take time to gather enough evidence to meet the expectations of those provisions. The more detailed your application, the better to prove to the Dark Sky Places Committee that you understand the goals and purpose behind the certification. Applicants are encouraged to only provide information as requested in the Guidelines, but supporting information may be provided in an appendix.
While some aspects of the five certifications guidelines vary, each applicant is responsible for completing the four primary actions that lead to dark sky conservation:
- Lighting policy
- Dark sky friendly retrofits
- Outreach and education (here’s a guide: A Review of 2020-2021 Annual Reports)
- Monitoring the night sky (here’s a guide: How to conduct a sky quality survey)
DarkSky staff will work closely with the applicant as they gather all the necessary evidence in support of the certification (as outlined in the Guidelines). Applicants are encouraged to reach out to DarkSky staff at any time to ask for assistance on how to complete one of the required tasks, review portions of the application as they are drafted, request Zoom meetings for brainstorming sessions and providing updates, and request evaluations of complete application drafts.
Submitting and editing draft applications
Once the draft application is complete, the applicant will send the document to the Dark Sky Places Program Associate for review. Emailed applications should have both the name of the site and the certification type (or abbreviation) in the document’s filename. Additionally, applications must be digital and text-searchable. Hard copies and scanned documents are not accepted. Larger documents may be submitted using WeTransfer, Google Drive, Box, or other similar electronic file transfer services. Applications are reviewed by DarkSky staff on a rolling basis and in the order in which they are received.
Most applications go through three major rounds of revisions with DarkSky staff. The review process provides feedback directing the applicant to add information to clarify or bolster existing sections, as well as noting any missing requirements.
Notify DarkSky of impending final nomination submission
It’s important to notify DarkSky staff at least 45 days before submitting your final draft in order to be assigned to the Dark Sky Places Committee’s next review cycle. The number of review cycles throughout a year is determined by: 1) the number of completed applications; 2) the number of complex and novel applications that need additional consideration; and 3) the number of applications the Committee can review in a given cycle. When the intent to submit is received, the Dark Sky Places Program Associate will communicate the next upcoming deadline and instructions for providing the final application package.
Once a cycle’s roster is full, additional applications will be added to the next cycle. Note: An application will not be considered complete until it has passed at least one full round of revisions with DarkSky staff and has successfully met all of the requested modifications.
Phase 3: Final review and certification
Average timeline: 90 to 150 days
The final phase of the application process involves a rigorous review by the Dark Sky Places Committee. They will assess whether the standards and expectations of the program are met in the application. Once endorsed, the applicant will work with DarkSky staff to plan the upcoming announcement of certification.
1. Final staff review
The final application is reviewed by the DarkSky staff to ensure that it meets all requirements. The application is cleaned of all remaining minor errors, to be presented in its best format. Successful applications are provided on DarkSky’s website for all to see, and the document should reflect the dedication and commitment from the team behind years of effort that result in dark sky protection and celebration.
2. Review by the Dark Sky Places Committee
After final review by DarkSky staff, the application is provided to the Dark Sky Places Committee with a group of other nominations for their assessment.
The Committee’s review takes about two months; for example, if the application is considered complete by DarkSky staff in April, applicants can expect to hear the Committee’s feedback in June. DarkSky staff will communicate an updated timeline to the applicant during this portion of the process.
After the Committee has reviewed the application, DarkSky staff will inform the applicant of one of three outcomes:
- Full endorsement of the application as-is
- Conditional endorsement with requested modifications
- Rejection, if the application fails to meet the Program’s standards
If the application is conditionally endorsed, the applicant may resubmit their application to DarkSky staff with the requested modifications at any time for a second review by the Dark Sky Places Committee. If the application is rejected, the applicant may be eligible for submitting an updated application in the future, but it will be placed at the back of the International Dark Sky Place applicant pipeline for additional reviews and guidance.
Finally, once the application is fully endorsed by the Dark Sky Places Committee, the certification announcement will be coordinated with DarkSky staff. DarkSky will publish an announcement highlighting the efforts of the newly certified Place with quotes from key partners in the application process and DarkSky staff. DarkSky will also create a new page on our website with the site’s information, including contact information, location, the completed application, and future annual reports, as well as any media to help promote events and accomplishments of the new Dark Sky Place.
Maintaining a certification in good standing
The International Dark Sky Place certification is not awarded in perpetuity. Instead, it is subject to regular review by DarkSky staff.
Revocation of the certification may occur if the minimum program requirements are not maintained. Disqualifying actions include not providing outreach efforts, night sky monitoring efforts, or regular nighttime public access, or permitting new development with non-compliant lighting. Additional information on DarkSky’s policy may be found in any of the Certification Guidelines under “Reassessment of IDSP Designations.”
Certified Places maintain DarkSky’s mission and values by committing to the following actions:
- Monitor and record night sky quality.
- Make progress in retrofitting existing lighting to be dark sky friendly, and encourage private owners of light fixtures within your site’s boundaries to follow best practices.
- Continue to host outreach efforts that meet the minimum standards of your specific certification category, and aim to reach new audiences over time.
- Coordinate your plans to think outward, and collaborate with other communities, protected areas, and dark sky advocacy groups to join the dark sky movement and do their part to celebrate and protect our night sky.
- Save documentation of these efforts and provide them in your IDSP Annual Report.
Frequently asked questions
Whom can I talk to about getting certified in the International Dark Sky Places Program?
You can contact the Dark Sky Places Program Associate for information about the International Dark Sky Places program. Contacts are encouraged to reach out to the Program Associate to ask questions about the Program before submitting the initial inquiry form. However, site-specific and detailed guidance on developing documents or other aspects of certification can only be provided after a site has passed an eligibility check and has submitted payment to initiate an application.
How much does it cost to apply to become certified as an International Dark Sky Place?
There is a one-time fee of $250 U.S. to begin the application process. DarkSky International does not charge any additional fees to apply for or maintain the certification.
External costs depend on the level of lighting retrofits required to bring fixtures into compliance, resources for designing and implementing outreach efforts and educational materials, or overhead costs to maintain these actions as part of the Place’s long-term commitments. As the dark sky movement continues to grow, local and regional consultants are becoming more available, and applicants may decide to pursue the option of contracting a consultant to provide support to develop components of an application or ongoing efforts post-certification. DarkSky does not have figures to estimate these costs, as they vary by site.
For Parks, Sanctuaries, and Reserves, what does it mean to be “legally protected”?
Following the definition of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a protected area is “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”
Federal, state, provincial, and other agencies manage public lands with the clear objective of conserving and protecting lands for use and enjoyment by the public. These protections are inherent in their management and governance.
Privately owned sites and those managed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), however, must demonstrate how the land and night sky will be managed in perpetuity. These applicants will need to provide documentation of a legally binding agreement with a third party. For example, to ensure protection if the land changes ownership, some private sites have conservation easements or covenants as a way to ensure that the property is managed to protect the night sky and its resources into the future.
For examples, review the two following certified nominations:
What is acceptable for regular nighttime public access?
The most important aspect of an International Dark Sky Place is providing a quality nighttime experience where a visitor can connect with nature, the nocturnal environment, and the night sky. A place should have ample and accessible opportunities for the general public. In addition, this access should be regular, meaning that access needs to be fairly consistent and open throughout the year, especially during peak observing times (new moon and clear skies).
In some cases, places are only open until 10 or 11 p.m., which is acceptable because that still gives an ample window of time to view the night sky. Other places may close their gates at night but allow people to park and walk in to view the stars, or may have designated areas for the public to go and stargaze. Places with limited nighttime access can propose a schedule to provide numerous supervised opportunities for nighttime viewing throughout the year.
I’ve submitted the application fee, so what should I get started on first?
Once you submit your fee, you will work directly with IDSP program staff on developing the more time-consuming components of your application. This includes elements such as the night sky quality survey, lighting inventory, Lighting Management Plan or Policy, and outreach and education programs. For suggestions, you may review this PowerPoint and this graphic (Community-oriented) prepared by DarkSky International, as well as the Dark Sky Planning document from the Utah Community Development Office.
Ready to apply?
If you’ve read all the Guidelines applicable to your site and are ready to initiate an application, submit a pre-application inquiry. Use this form to provide as much detail as possible when describing the proposed site and your interest in it becoming an International Dark Sky Place. DarkSky staff will contact you to review the eligibility criteria and how to proceed in the application process.