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.
Spring is finally in full swing and if you’re like me observing season is about to kick off again. I hate observing in the cold so when April rolls around it’s usually an indicator that better nights are coming…unless you live on the East Coast where it’s been unseasonably cold and cloudy for the last month. April is also exciting because it is Global Astronomy Month. Each year since 2009 Astronomer Without Borders has designated April as Global Astronomy Month to raise awareness for the study of astronomy both professionally and amateur. In my opinion, the biggest part of GAM is International Dark Sky Week. Beginning tomorrow April 5 and continuing through April 11, Astronomers Without Borders and the International Dark Sky Association are teaming up to raise awareness of the issue of light pollution. If you’ve read this blog before you’re probably familiar with the light pollution as I write about it quite frequently.
Because of light pollution, the artificial brightening of the night sky, less than a third of Earth’s population lives under natural, starry skies. Fifty percent of Americans and 75% of Europeans have to travel at least an hour from their homes to see a natural star-filled sky unaffected by light pollution. From my home in Maryland I have to travel 4.5 hours to reach the only truly dark sky spot around, Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, Pennsylvania. I am willing to make this pilgrimage once or twice a year but there should be somewhere closer to observe from that has a quality dark sky. The reality is, however, that these places are slowly dwindling in number. Artificial light, the scourge of the night sky, is slowly but surely conquering the beauty of the natural night sky.
Light pollution comes from poorly designed artificial light sources we use at night. Most of these light sources are from street lights that are unshielded so that light escapes upwards into the air which causes the light particles to scatter and create that familiar sky glow effect. Other problems are that we often use wattage that is too high for the task we’re trying to accomplish. If you’re using too bright of a light the light actually reflects off the ground and bounces back up into the sky to contribute to the sky glow.
You’ve also probably noticed the annoying glare that unshielded lights cause while driving. Glare comes from the bright ball of light generated by a typical drop lens or acorn style street light. See the example below for a typical “glare bomb”. The glare created by these lights can not only be annoying while driving, they can also be dangerous for people with poorer eyesight such as seniors or people with sight disorders. They are also so bright that they can mask important things like road signs and signals along with pedestrians and animals in the road.
Light trespass is also an result of poor lighting design. Light trespass occurs when a light from a neighbor or nearby building shines, or trespasses, on your property. For example, a stray light that shines into your bedroom at night that causes you to get inadequate sleep. To make a long story short, the lighting used should fit the requirements of the task it is trying to accomplish, no more, no less. We all agree that artificial light helps our society. But since when did extravagant over illumination become acceptable. Not only does light pollution affect the night sky, it is also a HUGE money waster! Every year over-illumination in the United States alone costs the same as approximately 2 billion barrels of petroleum and consumes unnecessary fossil fuels that are not replenish-able. Imagine how the cost of a gallon of gas could decrease if we didn’t over-illuminate our homes, businesses, and roads!
Fortunately, the solution for light pollution is relatively simple. Taking the time to assess your lighting needs and using the proper wattage and shielded fixtures will go a long way in reducing the amount of artificial light we send up into the night sky. Using shielded fixtures ensures that the light only goes where it is needed: the ground. This also allows for a lower watt bulb to be used and that in turn reduces the amount of light reflected back off the ground. Motion sensor are also useful to turn the light on only when there is movement.
Talking to neighbors about their lighting in a polite but concerned way is a great way to introduce the topic to them. Writing to legislators can be effective as well. There have been a number of municipalities that have incorporated lighting regulations into state, county, or local code in recent years. There is a bill in Maryland that is currently in the General Assembly that would require all new light fixtures purchased by state agencies to be fully shielded. The biggest hurdle we have to overcome is simply making people aware that there is a problem. Many people don’t even think about the light they see at night or how their lights are contributing to the pinkish glow we know all too well. In order to reverse the effects of light pollution we must use word of mouth to let people know that light pollution is real and it is diminishing the beauty of our night sky and wasting money in the process.
If you’d like to learn more about the issue of light pollution please read some of the other posts I’ve written on this blog and visit the International Dark Sky Association’s website www.darksky.org. Together we can put a cap on light pollution and restore the beauty of a star-filled sky!
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.
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!
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.
This makes me so excited! There is a new documentary coming out today January 18 from filmmaker Ian Cheney. The new film is called “The City Dark”, and it is dedicated to raising awareness of the dwindling of one of Earth’s natural resources: the night sky. People who love the night sky should absolutely make every attempt to see this film! You can go to theCityDark.com for a list of showings near you. I’m going to try to attend the showing at the D.C. Environmental Film Fest on February 24th. If you live in the Baltimore, MD or NoVa area you should really try to get out for this! This film is exactly what we need to get the ball rolling on awareness of night sky conservation. Praise God for people like Ian Cheney who have a passion for this issue and the means and the talent to do something about it!
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||
|7.6–8.0||19 at best||Zodiacal light, gegenschein, 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||
|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.|
|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; M15, M4, M5, 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.|
|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.|
|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||
|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 binoculars, M31 is modestly apparent to the unaided eye.|
|7||Suburban/urban transition or Full Moon||
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
Over the past century there has been one major casualty of urbanization and and afterwards urban sprawl: dark skies. The over-illumination of cities, suburbs, and now even rural towns has caused most Americans to completely forget about the night sky. A majority of the people born since 1950 probably have never seen the spiral arm of the Milky Way or the galactic center at night and it is most likely a forgotten memory to those over 70. Many people living in cities are lucky to be able to see Polaris and even Sirius, if anything at all. For those downtown, the sky is a dark purplish-pink color all night long. I live in Perry Hall, MD which is a suburb of Baltimore approximately 10 miles from downtown. My favorite dark sky site so far is in Jarrettsville, MD which is about 25 miles from Baltimore and the pinkish glow from the city is still very much visible in the southwest washing out almost all the stars on the horizon. Astronomers daily feel the pain of light pollution, but so do all citizens in the country, not in their telescopes but in their wallets.
On average each year over-illumination of cities and towns wastes an amount of energy equivalent to that of over 2 million barrels of petroleum! That is mind blowing! Imagine how much cheaper your gas could cost if we didn’t use streetlights that send their light straight up into the sky or if we kept those skyscrapers more dimly lit! Your city or municipality could save a ton of money on energy if they just used it wisely! The worst part about over-illumination is that most of the light pouring from our cities absolutely goes to waste. The light wasted shoots upward into the atmosphere where it creates a haze of unnatural color in the night sky obliterating all but the brightest stars from view and jacking up energy rates and emptying your pockets.
There are many viable solutions out there to reduce the amount of light pollution in our skies. However, since lawmakers and society in general are unwilling to accept an overhaul to the way we light our lives, and overall slow moving, any meaningful change looks unlikely in the near future. It is projected that by 2025 over 75% of the country will not have access to a reasonably dark sky, compared to slightly less than 50% today. Although, compared to Europe we’re slightly ahead of the game. Less than 10% of Europeans have access to a dark sky that is viable for star viewing, let alone astronomy of any sort. It is an extremely sad consequence of the culture we live in today where technology and human achievement come before natural beauty.
Many towns a few cities across the country already use energy and waste efficient lighting on streets, shopping centers, retailers, and homes but in order for any noticeable progress to be made a nationwide effort must be started. It begins with installing waste reducing lights along highways and streets in major cities. Lights that filter the particles straight downward onto the area desired instead of shooting it in all directions. This would allow for less powerful lights to be used since the needed light is focused directly toward its target. People will next complain that such an program would be too costly to implement but in reality prices for efficient lighting have dropped over the years as more people utilize them. Now the price gap is almost negligible. To stay brief, the point is that efficient and environmentally friendly lighting is highly attainable and has great potential to improve and preserve the natural beauty of the night sky.
As is the case for all civic issues, the best thing to do is to contact your lawmakers and let them know where you stand. You can even suggest to them that they propose a piece of legislation in session. If you live in Maryland the legislative session begins on 1/12/12 (this Thursday). You can also visit websites such as http://www.darksky.org to learn more about light pollution and potential solutions. Organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association need all the help they can get so do what you can and take action!
Lighting suppliers such as LampClick.com are also taking steps to educate the public about the effects and solutions of light pollution. Companies such as LampClick that are aware of the problem and willing to offer solutions should be seriously considered when designing outdoor lighting for your home or business.
If you live in Maryland and are looking to do some stargazing tonight is a GREAT night for it! We’re looking at an overnight low of 40° which is extraordinarily mild for this time of year! On top of that it’s a clear night. The only draw back is that the moon is almost full tonight, but you’ll get some incredible views of the moon if you have a nice pair of binoculars! Jupiter is still high in the sky along with the Crab Nebula to the lower right of the moon. Those three objects are all relatively close to one another and should provide some excellent viewing. As always during the winter the Orion constellation and its brilliant nebula are visible until a couple hours before dawn. This will be, hands down, a great night for some Ball So Hard stargazing! To God be the glory!
So since I’m new to the whole astronomy gig I figured I must do what every new amateur astronomer must do and start mapping out the night sky on your own! I have no idea how I’m going to do it just yet but hey, it can’t be that hard! The ancient Egyptians figured it out 5000 years ago so I should be able to do it completely with my iPhone in one week, right? But seriously, I think it would be really cool to make a record of the movements of the stars and planets on my own. I’ll start with the planets to keep it simple for now. Jupiter, Venus, and Mars are all fairly visible at night right now. The moon should be pretty easy also. As long as there’s no complex math involved in the process I’ll be OK. I have a compass on my phone and I know all about angles of declination and the parallax angle and all that fun stuff but if you have suggestions feel free to comment away!
As I’m writing this I’m regretting not thinking of this sooner so I could have started on the first of the year 😦 But such is my life. For now I’m waiting here drinking some Jack Frost tea waiting for the clouds to break so I can log Jupiter and the moon for tonight. That is all for now. Good night planet Earth!
…And lights…but mostly clouds.
I used to not care about the large accumulations of water vapor that populate the Earth’s troposphere, but now that I’m an amateur astronomer I hate them with a fiery passion! Nothing ruins a day filled with anticipation of wonderful stargazing with a dark sky like the appearance of clouds at sunset. Or better yet, planning on taking my binoculars out at night when it’s clear out then waiting an hour only to find a completely overcast sky! I find myself shaking my fist at the heavens and cursing the clouds for ruining what I had planned for that night. Nothing reminds me more of the One who is in control of the heavens better than ruined plans. I remember that the universe is God’s and that He controls every aspect of His creation including the cloud cover and that He allows me to gaze upon His beauty indirectly through His beauty revealed in the heavens. The celestial beauty on a clear night testifies to the beauty of the God who created it. If God covers the night sky with clouds then I’m not supposed to view the heavens that night for whatever reason. I might think it’s stupid that it’s cloudy but God has other plans for me that night. The purpose of my new hobby is to become better in tune with God and His presence in the universe and my life and to love Him all the more. So remembering that He is in control of the cloud cover should help me to remember His sovereignty on both the grand scale of redemptive history and the minute details of my life such as whether or not I go stargazing on any given night.
The fact is: we serve an amazing God who is both Creator and Father. He the conductor of the cosmic orchestra we see from our terrestrial home and the supporter of our lives who loves us and cares for us even down to the smallest of details.
I’ve created this blog as another channel for me to explore my new-found interest in astronomy. I am now the proud owner of a pair of 15×70 Celestron Sky Master binoculars and I’m lifting the anchor on my maiden voyage of the galaxy. This blog will relate (as much as possible) my two of my favorite things, astronomy and the Bible. I am a man of faith and some science. I am hoping that by studying the night sky I will learn more about science and God. The two are not enemies like mainstream scientists propose, but rather science points to God and displays His glory in creation. On this site I will post summaries of my encounters with the night sky and (maybe one day) photos of these encounters, articles from other amateur astronomers, and much, much, more. If you’re reading this and you have a passion for the splendor of the night sky, feel free to comment on what I’ve posted! Thanks for reading!