This article appeared in the June 2007 edition of the local astronomy club's publication, the "Inside Orbit." It has been edited for internet viewing

Saving and Sharing the Night Skies

I have been an astronomer for most of my life, and even after all these years I love "looking up." It never gets old. I can observe the moon, the planets, nebulae, galaxies, and everything else in the cosmos time and time again without losing my sense of awe, amazement, and interest. I want to know more.
When I was a kid one of the best things about going to my Aunt’s place in August of each year was the ability to stay up all night and watch the Perseid meteors from a dark site. I would just take a blanket or sleeping back out into the fields and lie down, unencumbered by any lights whatsoever, as the nearest town was over 30 miles away.

But one of the things that screws up the view of the night sky is light pollution. It gets worse every year, and not much is done about it. The public is misinformed by the companies that make lighting fixtures, and even the power companies. But there have been studies and studies that show that many lights to not a secure place make.

Soon it will be impossible to see the night sky from even the suburbs. Forget about the cities already. But things are being done, thankfully.

The International Dark-Sky Association has been in existence for nearly 20 years, and their mission is “to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting.” The IDA stresses that you can have areas lit, but does it correctly. And to do this, they have an extensive area on their website which points out not only the proper lighting, but where to get it. They also point to studies that show how improper outdoor lighting not only wastes money, but is actually harmful to people and other living organisms.

I just ran across this link, and it piqued my interest. It's a "Declaration in Defence of the Night Sky" ...

From the website.... “This initiative is designed as an international campaign in defence of the quality of the night skies and the general right to observe the stars, open to the participation of all scientific, cultural and citizens' associations and institutions related to the defence of the firmament.”

This sounds great. An international organization dedicated to keep the night skies as pristine as possible for future generations. Especially in a time where there is a perceived lack of interest in science, and people and governments are going about willy-nilly spending money on equipment to make life a 24/7 event on this planet, a direct plan of action is needed to bring us back to the era of critical thinking, of the excitement of exploration, which is an innate human trait.
This is particularly of high interest at this time, when – in just under two years – there will be an international celebration of astronomy.

The International Year of Astronomy, on the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo, will be a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture. As stated on their website: “The aim of the Year is to stimulate worldwide interest, especially among young people, in astronomy and science under the central theme “The Universe, Yours to Discover”.”

Those of us that have been interested in astronomy for a while have seen the slow decline of such an interest of young people in particular. They don’t observe. Why would they want to, when they can sit in their homes and look at "pretty pictures" on the internet? Why take the time to learn the beauty of the night sky and take your own photographs when you can download a great Hubble shot? In this "age of the internet" people "want it now" without any exertion. Click and download, don't do it yourself. Sure, I think the work by Hubble and other instruments are glorious, and they serve a purpose. But photographs that I have taken, and the objects I have observed over the years, mean more to me personally than anything I can download. They are personal because it was my knowledge, expertise, and the dedication to hard work that allowed me to do the observations and take the photos.

This extends to astronomy and science in general. I said above that it's hard to get people to look up. Just try to get those same people to name constellations, or to point out a specific star or planet? Well, I can. I can go out and travel throughout the cosmos because I am familiar with the night sky. (Sometimes I think the people who swear they see "UFOs" wouldn't see them if they knew the night sky).

Some people say "I don't have time for stuff like that" but they can spend their time on frivolous things without thinking twice about it. I say if you have an interest in something, you make the time for it. You don't make excuses.

For me, my relationship with the cosmos is a personal one. It allows me a deeper understanding of the Universe because I take the time to learn. I don't "want it now." And so I take pity those who don't spend time out under the stars.

So we’ve got two new things in this world that are trying not only to save a precious natural resource, but to bring that resource to millions of individuals – men, women & children – who haven’t, or can’t be bothered to, look up at the night sky.

Astronomy clubs can be found ther world over. I believe that it’s our duty to stand behind these ideas put forth by the IDA, the IYA2009 group, and by UNESCO. Every one of the members of an astronomy club joined because they have an interest in astronomy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or a hard core observer, it’s our right to have the night skies available to observe, and a privilege to do so. And even more of a privilege to share our experiences with others.

Like the starship Enterprise, these clubs have a mission as well. And that mission is to bring astronomy to the public. And the way to do that starts with member participation. Come hang out at the meetings and the star parties... help out when we have public observing sessions in the community. The club isn’t asking much, and the rewards you receive are immense.

So...

Take the time. Gaze upward. Experience the wonder of the Universe above you.

And bring a friend.


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