Category Archives: Night Sky

The Darker Side of Light

After a few months of inactivity I’ve developed an idea that will keep me busy blogging.  It’s been cloudy for so much of the summer so I haven’t been able to do much observing.  My attention, therefore, has turned to other activities related to astronomy that I can pursue when the weather is not ideal for observing.  If you’ve read any of my previous articles on this site you’ve probably read about light pollution.  Maybe you’ve heard of it elsewhere or perhaps you’ve never even considered the possibility of light being a pollutant.  While electric lighting is a marvel of the industrial age and a wonderful aide to modern life it also, like many good things, has a darker side.

From the beginning of life on Earth approximately 4 billion years ago all of Earth’s creature, including humans, have lived in an unending cycle of light and dark.  Bright sun-drenched days give way to the darkness of night and the majesty of a star-strewn sky with its backbone the Milky Way arching across from horizon to horizon.  Life has evolved according to that cycle and it has flourished.  It wasn’t until just over 100 years ago that we began introducing large quantities of artificial light into the environment.  This artificial light disrupts the light-dark cycle (also known as the circadian clock) that life has depended on for billions of years.  It has endangered species like insects, turtle, hundreds of species of birds, and all manner of nocturnal creatures.  Artificial light is also a known contributor to many human diseases such as obesity, insomnia, diabetes, and hormonal cancers.  Besides the biological effects of artificial light, it is also a massive waste of energy.  Every year in the United States alone, poorly designed or over-used light that shines up into the sky wastes $2.2 billion!

Last, but certainly not least, artificial light has destroyed the night sky that humans have loved for thousands of years.  When the lights from un-shielded fixtures shine up into the sky the light scatters when it hits particles in the air.  The result is called skyglow.  You can clearly see the effects of skyglow when you look towards a city or town at night from a distance.  The yellow, orange, or pink glow in the sky is the sum of all the light from all the street lights, parking lot lights, stadium lights, residential lights, etc…and their light scattered in the air.  The dome of light obliterates all but the brightest stars and the Milky Way is a thing of the past.  Depending on the size of the city, skyglow is noticeable from as far as 100 miles away as a dome on the horizon.

Light pollution has severe negative consequences on my pursuit of my hobby of astronomy as I have to drive considerably far from my home to view under dark enough skies.  I currently drive 33 miles from my home in north Baltimore to reach my observing site in Fawn Grove, PA and even there the effects of light pollution are quite pronounced and the Milky Way is barely visible on clear, moonless nights.  To reach a location almost totally unaffected by light pollution I’d have to drive five hours north to Cherry Springs State Park near Coudersport, PA.

What I’ve decided to do over the next couple months (or however long it takes) is to compile a photo essay of sorts that chronicles the effects of light pollution throughout the Maryland and Pennsylvania area.  My goal is to photograph constellations, horizons, skylines, and light fixtures everywhere to make known to my readers the harmful effects light pollution has on the night sky and astronomy.  I will visit many locations throughout Maryland from the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, to a swamp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, to rural York County, PA,  an international dark sky park, and many places in between.  I hope that this project will open some eyes and convince people of the reality of light pollution and the truth that it is something that we CAN fix.

In the United States today, eight out of ten people will never see the Milky Way in their lifetime because of light pollution.  It doesn’t have to be that way though.  Through public education and teamwork with local governments we can reverse the harmful effects of light pollution and preserve the night sky and its splendor for future generations.

Lights Out in France: New Light Pollution Laws for French Businesses

New French law to require shops and business to turn their lights off overnight

New French law to require shops and business to turn their lights off overnight

I love hearing about light pollution in the news and media, especially when the stories are about people, towns, or governments taking action.  That’s why when I read an article on guardian.co.uk about a new light pollution law in France I nearly did my version of the Ray Lewis dance!  The new law is an attempt to both curb several aspects of light pollution.  France’s Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, Delphine Batho, announced the new law yesterday directed towards lighting on non-residential buildings across the country.  The new law will make it obligatory for shops and commercial buildings in France to shut off their interior, window, and exterior lighting at night.

The main aspects of the new law are as follows:

  • Interior lighting in office buildings must be switched off one hour after the staff leaves the building
  • Exterior lighting used for illuminating building facades may be turned on one hour before sunset but must be switched off by 1 a.m.
  • Window lighting in commercial buildings must be switched off between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m.

Minister Batho announced the law hopeful for France’s future as a global leader in the fight against light pollution and all its negative effects.  According to the non-governmental organization the Agence de l’environnement et de la maîtrise de l’énergie(ADEME), the new law will help France save two terrawatthours of energy each year (1 terrawatt is 1 million megawatts) which is enough to power 750,000 homes in France every year.  These energy savings results in a reduction in France’s CO2 output by 250,000 tons each year.

As with almost every light pollution ordinance there are exceptions.  Buildings that are tourist attractions year-round are exempt from the new law, as well as Christmas lights, and local holidays and festivals.

Minister Batho is hopeful that the new regulations will not only reduce France’s energy consumption, but also help preserve the nocturnal environment, limit health problems caused by excess light, and of course help improve the quality of the night sky.  The law will go into effect on July 1, 2013 so if you’re an astronomer, professional or amateur, in France make sure you wait until after 1 a.m. to set up your telescope for the night!  I can only hope this snowballs into bigger and better things for France and all of Europe in regards to fighting light pollution.  Well done.

Sources:  
Davies, Katie, The Guardian Online, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/30/lights-out-france-shops-offices
Myels, Robert, Digital Journal http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/342542
de la Baume, Maïa, New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/31/world/europe/paris-lights-to-be-dimmed-to-save-energy.html?_r=0
 
Additional Resources:
http://www.lampclick.comLight Pollution:  Effect on Humans and Energy Efficient Solutions
Astronomers Without Borders Dark Skies Awareness Blog
International Dark Sky Association

10th Annual Dark Sky Festival – Harmony, FL

Last year I had the privilege of writing a short piece about the Dark Sky Festival in Harmony, Florida.  I really enjoyed learning about the town of Harmony and the Festival they host every year so when I was asked again this year I jumped at the opportunity.  This year’s Dark Sky Festival promises to be the most successful yet.

Once again the town of Harmony, Florida is pleased to present to you the 10th annual Dark Sky Festival!  For the last ten years Harmony, a small town southeast of Orlando, has hosted a festival to celebrate the wonder of the Earth’s most beautiful natural resource, the night sky.  On the night of February 2nd, 2013 the public is invited to attend a night of celebration and education focused on learning about the night sky and the benefits of living under a night sky free from the effects of excessive artificial lighting.  The effects of excessive artificial lighting are scientifically proven to have negative effects on human and wildlife health, to damage the nighttime ecosystem, and of course mask the beauty of the starry night sky.

Harmony, Florida was founded in 2003 by Orlando’s former Humane Society/SPCA director Martha Lentz with the goal of creating a community where humans can live in harmony with nature and the environment.  The town was master planned into one of the most unique communities in Florida.  One of the goals of the community is to limit its impact on light pollution to preserve a natural view of the night sky.  Light pollution is the sum of all the wasted artificial light that is shined into the sky as a result of poorly designed lighting fixtures.  This wasted light produces the all too familiar sky glow effect that turns the sky pink near the horizon and washed out overhead.  The effects of light pollution can be limited, and even reversed as residents of Harmony know.  By taking simple and inexpensive steps to ensure all outdoor lighting fixtures are fully-shielded (meaning no light escapes upward from its source) Harmony has created a very aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly lightscape.  Furthermore, the lighting regulations created for Harmony are so impressive that the surrounding county which includes parts of Walt Disney World has adopted them as a lighting ordinance.

Dark Sky #3

The Harmony night sky

This year’s Dark Sky Festival promises to be the most successful one yet.  Over 5,000 people attended the 2012 Festival and again the town expects to see growth in attendance.  Attractions of this year’s Festival include the following:

  • Public stargazing with over 50 telescopes
  • Speakers from NASA, Seminole State College Planetarium, the International Dark Sky Association, and more
  • Two mobile planetariums with presentations and NASA Exhibits
  • Variety of kids activities including Mad Science, demos from high school robotics clubs, glow-in-the-dark mini-golf and the Kids Zone
  • Music, food, specialty booths, and presentations from scientists

This year’s speakers include International Dark Sky Association’s Executive Director Bob Parks and Jon Cowart, Deputy Partner Manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.  If you stick around long enough you might even run into some Star Wars characters from the famous 501st Legion!Dark Sky #4

 

 

Don’t miss this wonderful opportunity to learn more about astronomy and the dark sky movement as well as a chance to explore the universe first-hand through some incredible telescopes!  Astronomers from around the state have their telescopes set up for free, public viewing.  If you’re completely new to the field of astronomy or a seasoned pro the Dark Sky Festival at Harmony surely has something for everyone.  Make sure you stop by the beautiful town of Harmony on Saturday February 2, 2013 to enjoy this rapidly growing annual celebration of the night sky.  Festivities begin at dusk at 5 pm and continue until 10 pm.

To learn more about the town of Harmony please visit the town’s website www.harmonyfl.com.

Dark Sky Festival Flyer

 

2012 In Review

Twenty-twelve was a fascinating year for myself, astronomy, and science.  There were many scientific milestones reached and important events during the last twelve months, most notably, the we survived the bedlam that was the Mayan apocalypse.  I thought I’d take some time to compile the best moments from 2012 in astronomy and space science and look ahead to 2013 hi-lighting the known astronomical events coming up.

First on the list is the impressive conjunction of Venus and Jupiter from March 15th.  On the date famous for the murder of Julius Caesar we were treated to two Roman gods forming a conspiracy of their own in the sky.  Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets in the solar system respectively, passed extremely close to each other (from Earth’s perspective), just 3 degrees apart.

Venus and Jupiter conjunction on 3/15/12 seen from France.  Credit:  Laurent Lavender TWAN

Venus and Jupiter conjunction on 3/15/12 seen from France. Credit: Laurent Lavender TWAN

Venus-Jupiter conjunctions are fairly common, occurring roughly every two years.  The next conjunction will be on May 28, 2013 and will be even more eye-catching when the two planets pass just one degree from one another.  Even more spectacular will be the conjunction in 2014 when the two pass only one-fourth of a degree from each other!  To put that in perspective, the width of the full moon is about one-half a degree in apparent size, so the 2014 conjunction will place the planets half a moon width apart!  I hate to build you up for these two conjunctions though, because neither will be visible from the Northern hemisphere.  If you can wait 53 years, until 2065, you’ll get to see the best of all planetary conjunctions:  a transit, when Venus passes in front of Jupiter in its orbit.  I may be alive but I’ll be quite an old man by then.

The next highlight from 2012 is something, if you saw it, you’ll likely never forget…the transit of Venus.  While my own luck observing the transit was less than optimal, I did get to view it briefly and it was amazing.  On June 5th, 2012 Venus transited, or passed in front of the sun appearing as a small black disk silhouetted against the fiery inferno of the sun.  There were some truly remarkable pictures of the transit taken by professionals and amateurs alike.  What made this event so special was the rarity of it and its historical and scientific significance in past centuries.  A transit of Venus takes place in pairs every 121 years then 105 years to form a cycle of 243 years.  Venus crosses in front of the sun once a year in its orbit but it’s only during these cycle years that it can actually be seen from Earth due to the two planets orbits being slightly inclined.

Venus transits have been historically significant to the world of science for centuries.  The first transit to be observed with a telescope was in 1639.  British scientist Jeremiah Horrocks used the transit that year to make a much more accurate calculation of the Earth’s distance from the sun using angles of parallax and geometry.  The 1769 transit was led to the discovery of an atmosphere on Venus.  Legendary explorer Captain James Cook observed the transit that same year in Tahiti at the still named “Point of Venus”.

2012 Venus Transit in extreme ultraviolet light  Credit:  NASA SDO

2012 Venus Transit in extreme ultraviolet light Credit: NASA SDO

The next event on the list is the occultation of the moon and Jupiter on July 15th, 2012.  Only observers in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa were able to view this majestic event but the images produced from it were spectacular.

Series of images from the Jupiter-Moon occultation from Lebanon Credit:  AstroZ1 on Flickr

Series of images from the Jupiter-Moon occultation from Lebanon Credit: AstroZ1 on Flickr

The next event on my list is the one that I was looking forward to the most.  Curiosity.  I had been eagerly anticipating Curiosity’s landing on Mars for over a year and on August 5th it finally happened.  Due mostly to the unprecedented entry, landing, and descent plan Curiosity was intriguing from the word Go!  The sky crane and powered descent was daring and risky but it proved a massive success for NASA.  Not to mention the fact that Curiosity is the most scientifically advanced planetary rover yet.  The rover is practically a fully functioning mobile chemistry laboratory.  Within days of its landing Curiosity sent back some of the most stunning and detailed images of the Martian surface we’ve ever seen.

Panorama of rocky Martian landscape from Curiosity  Credit:  NASA/JPL

Panorama of rocky Martian landscape from Curiosity Credit: NASA/JPL

The final two events on my list of memorable astronomical events of 2012 both happened in the month of December.  First off is the mighty Geminid meteor shower of three weeks ago.  The peak of the shower combined with a new moon allowed for some excellent viewing.  The expected rate was all the way up to 120 per hour!  I went out for about one hour between 10:30 and 11:30 under moderately light polluted skies and was able to count 55 meteors.  I was quite impressed with the shower which included several fireball meteors with long, smokey trails.

Splendid Geminid fireball  Credit:  Patrick Cullis

Splendid Geminid fireball Credit: Patrick Cullis

I suppose the last event can’t really be confined to the month of December 2012.  It actually spans over a length of several years but it came to a conclusion just a couple days ago.  Of course I’m talking about the apocalypse!  You might have called it Judgment Day, the Rapture, or simply the winter solstice, but there was an inordinate amount of hype surrounding the long-dreaded end of the Maya calendar.  This event in particular is in reference to the way people with degrees in physics, astronomy, geology, cosmology, ontology, biology, paleontology, gynecology, urology, you name it, refuted the claims of doomsday made by people who are less intelligent.  Two people/organizations come to mind when I think of leading the fight against stupidity:  NASA and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Turns out people were actually believing the convoluted claims of doomsday 2012 and the world was indeed in danger…from stupidity.  So hats off to you NDT and NASA for saving the world!

Earth's next great hero:  Neil deGrasse Tyson

Earth’s next great hero: Neil deGrasse Tyson

So that wraps up my 2012 rewind.  This past year has truly been remarkable for astronomy and science.  2013 promises to be just as exciting.  Stay tuned over the next day or two as I’ll preview the two excellent comets coming up in the next year.

2012 Black Forest Star Party

Some weekends are good, some are bad.  Some weekends are memorable, some are forgettable.  This past weekend was definitely one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.  My dad and I attended the Black Forest Star Party at Cherry Springs State Park this past weekend and it was incredible!  Living my entire life under the heavily light polluted skies of the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area has severely limited my ability to get to a dark sky, and when I say dark I really mean just dark enough that a trace amount of the Milky Way is visible directly overhead.  I have to drive about 30 miles from my home in the suburbs in northeastern Baltimore County to reach my dark sky site where I do my observing and even then, there are still significant light pollution domes on the horizon that can extend up to 10 or 15°.  It’s not very inspiring to see Sagittarius and the galactic core sink into a haze of bright blue and grey during your observing session but it’s the best I’ve got around home.

Cherry Springs, on the other hand, is simply magnificent!  It is located in the middle of a massive state forest in Potter County, PA.  There is literally nothing in any direction for at least 20 miles.  There is hardly any light pollution evident and only towards the north that extends but a few degrees above the horizon.  The starlight is crystal clear with the altitude close to 2,5oo feet and less atmospheric turbulence.  Then there’s the Milky Way!  The central spiral containing the galactic core extends in milky white beauty up from the horizon in the south-southwest after sunset all the way across to Cassiopeia and almost down to Perseus and Auriga.  I’ve never in my life seen a sky so beautiful before!  It’s truly amazing that for thousands of years of human history that sight was an every night occurrence and now in the last 150 years we’ve almost completely lost it!  It really makes me much more appreciative of the work the International Dark Sky Association does to preserve the night sky and it makes me more proud to support their mission as well.

As for the Black Forest Star Party itself, it was a great time.  My dad and I arrived late Friday afternoon and hundreds of other amateur astronomers were already there set up with their telescopes and cars and in some cases, RVs and clam shell observatories.  The astronomy field was absolutely packed as you can see from the photos I took.  This was my first star party so I expected to get a case of telescope envy and sure enough, I did!  The first scope that caught my attention was a 25″ Obsession dob…freaking sweet!  We began setting up the tent under increasing cloud cover and by the time we had gotten everything set up the rain started.  At that point we were totally bummed that the night was a complete wash out so we got in the tent and did some reading before going to bed around 9pm.  I was woken by my dad at around 10:30 to him whispering “Come out and look at the sky!”  I mumbled back to him, “The clouds are gone?” and I poked my head out of the tent entrance and…WOW!  Our tent was facing southwest and looking directly at the Sagittarius-Scorpius border with the Milky Way exactly perpendicular to the horizon.  If my jaw could have dropped, it would have fallen straight to the ground.  “Alright, let’s get the scope out” were my next words and we spent the next 2 – 2 1/2 hours observing the pristine skyscape.  We viewed many of the Messier objects visible in Sagittarius and Lyra, along with M31, the Andromeda galaxy which was an absolutely stunning view!  The Veil Nebula was an amazing sight as well, even without a filter.  We also observed the Dumbbell and Ring nebulae.  Many globular clusters were great views also in the 35mm Panoptic.  We finished the night with M45, the Pleiades and Jupiter in my 6mm Radian but the seeing was pretty bad.  We both went to bed feeling extremely satisfied with the night even though it started off so terribly with clouds and rain.

Saturday morning was freezing cold.  We cooked eggs and pancakes for breakfast and at noon headed off to the first of the lectures on magnetars and pulsars.  The second session was pretty interesting.  The Penn State team competing for the Google Lunar X Prize team leader talked about the competition and the search for life in the solar system.  Lunch followed, then I planned out what we were going to look at that night (I decided to go with a bit of a Messier Marathon, M2-34).  At 5pm was the keynote speaker, Dr. Heidi Hammel, the Executive Vice President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and interdisciplinary scientist working on the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor.  Dr. Hammel was speaking about JWST and all of its capabilities as NASA’s next great observatory.  I very much enjoyed her lecture and I’m all the more excited for JWST’s launch in 2018.  The raffle for the door prizes was next but we can skip that part because I didn’t win anything 😦

All that was left was to have dinner and get prepared for another glorious night of observing, and it was going to be glorious because the clouds that ruled the day had cleared out completely by the end of the raffle.  The first stars, Vega, Deneb, and Altair began to appear to form the Summer Triangle near the zenith about 20 minutes after sunset, followed by an ever-brightening Milky Way. We did our mini Messier marathon which included objects such as the Lagoon Nebula (which my dad spotted with our binoculars), M13, the Hercules globular cluster, Andromeda again, the Wild Duck cluster, and much more.  Again, we ended the night by observing Jupiter which was much higher in the sky than Friday night and the view through the Radian was spectacular!  The amount of detail on the cloud bands blew me away and we got to watch Io transit Jupiter for a little while before we decided it was too cold and we were too tired to go on any further.  All in all, I’d have to say that both nights were absolutely inspiring!

Guy next to us (left) showing off his homemade “Ferrari” scope to Dr. Michael Paul, leader of Penn State’s Google Lunar X Prize

The other awesome part about the weekend was getting to see all the different (and expensive) telescopes other people brought.  I mentioned the 25″ Obsession that was near us, but by far the coolest one was right next to us.  The guy two spots over had the most amazing telescope of them all.  It was a homemade truss tube dobsonian scope made from machined aluminum.  He had fabricated and cut all the aluminum parts from the base, to the pivoting cradle, to the truss tubes, and the secondary mirror ring and painted them red.  To top it off he had a Ferrari name plate on the base because his son is a huge Ferrari fan.  That little addition was absolutely fricking sweet!  He also had a partial light shroud with the Ferrari logo on it.  By his estimate, he had spent roughly 200 hours designing and building his scope and had just finished it the week before the star party!  The quality of the design and all the parts seemed incredible for a homemade scope.  My only regret from the weekend is that I didn’t get more pictures of it or a chance to observe with it as he left Saturday evening.  The only picture I got of the scope was of him showing it off to Dr. Michael Paul, the Penn State X Prize team leader (who seemed really impressed by it).

I’m extremely glad I got to go to the Black Forest Star Party this year and I will definitely go again next year, hopefully before then as well.  If you’re reading this and you’ve never been, get your rear end up there before it gets too freezing cold!  Even if you don’t have a telescope or binoculars you can spend an entire night just staring at the beauty of a truly dark sky.  Cherry Springs State Park is dedicated astronomy park and is specially outfitted for the study of astronomy both professionally and for amateurs.  It is also only the second International Dark Sky Park in the entire world and is given a gold rating which is the highest level of quality of sky.  The upkeep and improvement of Cherry Springs’ astronomy program is funded by the Dark Sky Fund.  If you’ve enjoyed the benefits of CSSP in the past please consider donating to the fund to keep the park one of the best in the world.

I would highly recommend CSSP and the BFSP to anybody interested in astronomy.  Whatever your experience is, this is the place for you to be!  The Black Forest Star Party will go down as one of the coolest and most memorable night of my life so far and I can’t wait to go back!  For more pictures of the weekend (including some sub-par images of the sky) visit my album on Imgur.com.

The Light of Stars

I love time lapses.  Especially time lapses of the night sky!  Especially time lapses of the night sky with epic music!  That’s why I love this time lapse video!  This was up on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website yesterday and it gets an instant share for being so awesome.  Astrovideographer Daniel López assembled this stunning montage over the course of two months filming on the island of Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands.  Using motorized cranes and cameras on sliding tracks López captures some truly awe-inspiring footage of the Milky Way’s waltz across the sky, the moon, Venus and Jupiter setting, the constellation Orion, and beautiful natural landscapes.  But I’ve said enough about it already, just watch it!

Video Credit and Copyright: Daniel López (El Cielo de Canarias); Music:  La Busqueda de Ianna (Epic Soul Factory)

The 9th Annual Dark Sky Festival at Harmony

Are you an amateur or professional astronomer looking for a great star party to attend?  Does the night sky fascinate you or intrigue you?  If you’ve ever wondered what’s out there in the universe then on April 14, 2012 you’ll want to be at the Dark Sky Festival in Harmony, Florida!  For nine years running the town of Harmony, about 40 minutes south of Orlando, has hosted a Dark Sky Festival to promote awareness of preserving the nighttime sky, our most spectacular of natural resources.  Every April the town of Harmony fills with astronomers professional and amateur alike, and tourists who are curious about the night sky.

As humans we are mysteriously drawn to the cosmos as we attempt to find our place in the universe.  It is the story of human experience to ask questions of the heavens and seek to relate to it.  The people in Harmony are passionate about the oldest science known to man, the study of the heavens.  The Dark Sky Festival is Harmony’s annual sharing of their love of astronomy and the night sky with the surrounding area and tourists.  Regularly attracting visitors from the Orlando-Walt Disney World area and the Space Coast to the east, Harmony’s Dark Sky Festival draws about 5,000 visitors each year and they are expecting even more this year!

Events for this year’s festival include science exhibits and demonstrations, NASA speakers and exhibits, a mobile planetarium, live music, food and drinks, glow in the dark mini-golf…and of course, stargazing on “Telescope Hill”.  Also featuring at this year’s festival will be the documentary film “The City Dark” by filmmaker Ian Cheney focusing on light pollution and its effects on our culture, our bodies, and the environment.  I had the privilege of seeing this film in D.C. a couple weeks ago and it is excellent and I would strongly recommend it for anyone interested in astronomy.

This year’s festival will take place on Saturday April 14, 2012 from 6 – 11pm.  The Festival is sponsored by several local astronomy clubs as well as the popular Star Walk app for iPhone and iPad and the International Dark Sky Association.  All events are free to the public.

If you’re wondering what the sky is like in Harmony I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!  For being only 40 minutes from Orlando and Disney World Harmony’s skies are rated as a class 4 on the Bortle Scale of light pollution.  The town of Harmony is master-planned with environmental intelligence as the goal, specifically reducing the town’s impact on light pollution which is caused from wasteful light that escapes from poorly designed light fixtures.  Energy efficiency is also highly valued by town residents as they seek to live responsibly towards nature and the night sky.  Harmony’s lighting standards are so impressive that the entire county eventually adopted them as a new lighting ordinance.  That is quite a feat since Orlando and Walt Disney World are a part of the same county.

If you are or will be in the Orlando area on Saturday April 14th do yourself a favor and visit the Dark Sky Festival in Harmony, FL.  If you’re an astronomer and would like to register to set up your telescope on Telescope Hill visit the astronomers section on the festival’s website.  For more information visit www.darkskyfestival.com.

If you’ve never looked through a telescope before, come to be amazed at the vast richness of beauty that is the night sky!  The 9th annual Dark Sky Festival at Harmony is free to the public and open to people of all ages.  It is a celebration of nature and education of cosmic proportions that will surely inspire and amaze you!

Portrait of the Galaxy

I stumbled across this REALLY cool picture on Friday and I want to make sure as many people see it as possible because it’s so cool!  A group of UK astronomers just recently compiling ten years worth of data and observations from two different telescopes to form a panoramic view of the Milk Way.  The panoramic is shot in the infrared wavelength which allows us to see past the dust that clouds much of the galaxy to reveal the detail of billions of stars!  If you want to be amazed for several hours check out the interactive version that lets you zoom in and out!

The Milky Way edge-on in infrared Mike Read (WFAU), UKIDSS/GPS and VVV

The data used to create this stunning portrait used two telescopes and ten years worth of observations.  The UK Infrafed Telescope compiled the data for the right side and the Vista telescope in Chile gathered the data for the left side and the galactic center.  You can use the interactive version to find many deep sky objects like globular and open clusters as well as nebulae.  The dark patches represent areas for which data has not yet been collected.  You can read the original BBC article at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17539315.  Here’s to many happy hours of intrigue!

 

 

An Epic Landing

This is probably old news to many informed astro and space nerds (and Martians) but it still blows my mind every time I think about it.  As we know, NASA launched its massive Martian science laboratory named “Curiosity” late last year.  The one-ton rover will make the 570 million kilometer journey to Mars and enter the atmosphere on August 5, 2012.  Apart from the never before attempted method of landing using sky crane to lower the huge rover onto the surface, this landing is exciting for another reason.  Once the heat shield on the capsule is jettisoned, the small camera on the rover’s body will begin recording the last mile or two of the descent to the Martian surface shooting 1.3 millisecond exposures at 5 frames per second for approximately 2 mintues.  I’m imagining myself five months from now sitting in front of my computer with my face just inches away from the screen completely enamored with the live video coming in from another world!  It’s going to be a total geek out moment for me!  I’m not sure where the video will be viewed from, but my guess would be the Jet Propulsion Laboratory website.

Sky Crane method of landing on Mars Credit: Harry Whitver Air & Space Magazine

Also exciting about the video is that if it’s live NASA won’t be able to false color anything so it’ll be 100% authentic footage of the surface of Mars!  If that doesn’t excite you, I’m sorry.  I’m basically cursing the fact that it’s only March!  On the other hand, today is the first day of spring and the Vernal equinox so that’s pretty cool.  Get your eggs out today and try to stand them on edge.

Beautiful M95 Credit: ESO/VLT

More Mars-related news keeps coming in!  On Friday last week a potential supernova was discovered in Messier 95, a beautiful barred spiral galaxy in the constellation Leo and a part of the nearby Leo I group of galaxies.  M95 is easy to find right now because it is a mere 1/2° away from Mars.  That makes it visible in the same field of view as Mars in most telescopes at lower power.  The only trouble is that Mars is so bright this time of year that it floods the M95 area with light making it more difficult to spot.  The bright speck believed to be a supernova is located in one of the spiral arms of the galaxy so once located it is an easy find.  While unconfirmed as of yet, the supernova is believed to be a Type II which are common in spiral arms.  The nova is currently about magnitude 12 so it is invisible to the naked eye but should be easily discerned with a 6″ or bigger scope under dark skies.  There’s currently no moon so that should definitely aid your quest.  Happy hunting!

Earth Hour 2012

If there’s any such thing as a global holiday it should be Earth Hour.  Earth Hour is one day each year where governments, businesses, and individuals turn off their lights for one hour.  The day is the last Saturday of March and this year it’s March 31st, 2012.  The date is picked so that it is close to the equinox so that as much of the Earth is in darkness as possible as the planet turns.  The aim of Earth Hour is to raise awareness about global climate change and to send  a message to governments of cities and countries across the world.  Earth Hour began back in 2008 in Sydney, Australia when over 200,000 people turned off their lights for one hour.  The entire city was behind the project and it was a great success.  The following year all of Australia participated and Toronto, Canada also joined.  Since then, Earth Hour has spread to over 52,000 towns and cities in 135 countries!  This year we hope to have the largest participation yet!  The date is 3/31/12 and the time is 8:30pm.

While I’m all for saving energy and the environment and all that I’m also intrigued by the other effects of Earth Hour:  the skies.  Imagine if you will, if everyone in your city turned off their lights and all the buildings went dark for one hour; how dark would the sky be and how much more of the night sky you would be able to see?  Especially in a heavily light polluted state like Maryland, the difference could be dramatic if a large number of people and businesses participate!  If you’re an astronomer, or if you support Earth Hour in general, PLEASE, PLEASE spread the word!  Use Facebook, Twitter, your blog, your friend’s blogs, whatever outlet you have to spread the word please do so!  Together we can unite the world for one hour to preserve what has been given to us and to appreciate the beauty of the heavens.  For more information on Earth Hour please check out their website at www.earthhour.org.

Click here to visit the Earth Hour website

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