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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!

How Dark is Your Sky?

Have you ever seen a truly dark sky before?  Have you gazed up at the night sky and seen the Milk Way in all its dazzling beauty?  Have you seen the staggering splendor of the zodiacal light after twilight?  Have you seen the magnificent Messier galaxies and clusters with your naked eye on the clearest of nights?  If you are younger than 60 and live within 150 miles of a major city, chances are you answered “No” to each of those questions.  That is because of the effects of light pollution, specifically skyglow.  Skyglow is the unmistakable “glow” visible in a dome shape that seems to hover above and around cities engulfed in the effulgent glow of electricity.  It is remarkable how the tiniest amount of skyglow can render invisible a large amount of stars at night leaving the brightest objects illuminated as mere ghosts of their true beauty.

This type of light pollution drives astronomers, professional and amateur alike, insane!  It hinders the effectiveness of not only the naked eye, but the most sophisticated telescope, it masks the fierce beauty of the night sky, and hampers the scientific pursuits of the amateur star-watcher.

Aside from its adverse effects on astronomy, light pollution also is a huge energy waster!  I touched on this earlier in my post on Dark Skies, but it’s worth mentioning again that over illumination in the United States is responsible for approximately 4-5 million barrels of petroleum per day in energy wasted!  Our light-loving lifestyle is highly inefficient and wasteful and is damaging our health and the environment as well.  If you are passionate about night sky preservation visit the folks over at the International Dark-Sky Association.  They have many resources available to make efficient and night sky-preserving lighting possible.

If you want to know the extent of the light pollution where you live you can obviously just look outside on a clear night.  You can also use this chart published by Sky & Telescope Magazine in 2001.  The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale ranks the varying levels of dark sky based on the ability to see certain celestial objects and the visible magnitude of those objects.  This chart describe the classes of dark sky as outlined by John Bortle.  (**Note that this chart is from Wikipedia; I would have linked to it here but as Wikipedia will be blacked out globally tonight to protest the SOPA and PIPA acts in the U.S. I’ve provided here.  This graphic belongs to Wikipedia, I do not own this graphic nor have I had anything to do with its creation).  Sorry if the chart doesn’t quite fit on the page, here’s a link to the original article in Sky & Telescope.

That being said, go ahead and use this chart to find out which class your home falls in.  If it falls in classes 1-4 get out there tonight and do some stargazing!  If you’re like me and most likely live in a class 5 or 6, well my binoculars are easy to transport to someplace darker which is quite often the case when I use them.  Please feel free to comment on your night sky conditions where you live so we can all come over your house and have a star party! (only if you live in a 4 or above 😉 )  Enjoy!

 

Class Title Color key Naked-eyelimiting magnitude Stellar limiting magnitude (with 12.5″ reflector) Description
1 Excellent dark-sky site
black
7.6–8.0 19 at best Zodiacal lightgegenschein, zodiacal band visible; M33 direct vision naked-eye object; Scorpius and Sagittarius regions of the Milky Way cast obvious shadows on the ground; airglowis readily visible; Jupiter and Venus affect dark adaptation; surroundings basically invisible.
2 Typical truly dark site
gray
7.1–7.5 17 at best Airglow weakly visible near horizon; M33 easily seen with naked eye; highly structured summer Milky Way; distinctly yellowish zodiacal light bright enough to cast shadows at dusk and dawn; clouds only visible as dark holes; surroundings still only barely visible silhouetted against the sky; many Messier globular clusters still distinct naked-eye objects.
3 Rural sky
blue
6.6–7.0 16 at best Some light pollution evident at the horizon; clouds illuminated near horizon, dark overhead; Milky Way still appears complex; M15M4M5, and M22 distinct naked-eye objects; M33 easily visible with averted vision; zodiacal light striking in spring and autumn, color still visible; nearer surroundings vaguely visible.
4 Rural/suburban transition
green
6.1–6.5 15.5 at best Light pollution domes visible in various directions over the horizon; zodiacal light is still visible, but not even halfway extending to the zenith at dusk or dawn; Milky Way above the horizon still impressive, but lacks most of the finer details; M33 a difficult averted vision object, only visible when higher than 55°; clouds illuminated in the directions of the light sources, but still dark overhead; surroundings clearly visible, even at a distance.
yellow
5 Suburban sky
orange
5.6–6.0 15 at best Only hints of zodiacal light are seen on the best nights in autumn and spring; Milky Way is very weak or invisible near the horizon and looks washed out overhead; light sources visible in most, if not all, directions; clouds are noticeably brighter than the sky.
6 Bright suburban sky
red
5.1–5.5 14.5 at best Zodiacal light is invisible; Milky Way only visible near the zenith; sky within 35° from the horizon glows grayish white; clouds anywhere in the sky appear fairly bright; surroundings easily visible; M33 is impossible to see without at least binocularsM31 is modestly apparent to the unaided eye.
7 Suburban/urban transition or Full Moon
red
4.6–5.0 14 at best Entire sky has a grayish-white hue; strong light sources evident in all directions; Milky Way invisible; M31 and M44 may be glimpsed with the naked eye, but are very indistinct; clouds are brightly lit; even in moderate-sized telescopes the brightest Messier objects are only ghosts of their true selves.At a full moon night the sky is not better than this rating even at the darkest locations with the difference that the sky appears more blue than orangish white at otherwise dark locations.
8 City sky
white
4.1–4.5 13.5 at best Sky glows white or orange—one can easily read; M31 and M44 are barely glimpsed by an experienced observer on good nights; even with telescope, only bright Messier objects can be detected; stars forming familiar constellation patterns may be weak or completely invisible.
9 Inner-city sky
white
4.0 at best 13 at best Sky is brilliantly lit, with many stars forming constellations invisible and many weaker constellations invisible; aside from Pleiades, no Messier object is visible to the naked eye; only objects to provide fairly pleasant views are the Moon, the planets, and a few of the brightest star clusters.
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