As an amateur astronomer living in suburbia it can be frustrating and disappointing not to be able to see more than a handful of the brightest stars in the night sky. The problem, of course, is light pollution. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, this is the light from streetlights, house lights, outdoor lighting systems that cause that ‘skyglow’ you see near cities, where the skies never become truly dark. If you live in the city or suburbs, but camp for recreation, you’ve no doubt been impressed by how dark the skies are away from all that light, and how many more stars you can see in the wilderness. The difference can be staggering. City dwellers in Tokyo for example see no stars. None. All the neon signs and city lights completely wash out the sky. It’s not quite that bad where I live, fortunately, but I can’t see the Milky Way from my yard. I’d have to drive many miles to get to an area dark enough to see it. If you’ve never seen a map of the earth at night and how brightly lit our little planet is, check this out:
Well, so what? you say. If you’re not an astronomer, you may not see what the fuss is about. Apart from masking the sheer beauty of millions of stars, all that lighting costs a lot of money, wastes energy, and really does not contribute to safety. And if you have a neighbor with one of those hideous mercury vapor lights that shines into your bedroom all night (which if you’re like me you’ve fantasized about aiming a bb-gun at) you can probably appreciate how obnoxious it all is. Not to mention disrupting wildlife. But I mentioned it anyway. According to the transcript from NASA:
So about $2.3 billion to about $10 billion according to the International Dark Sky Association – depending on how you look at it – $2.3 billion to $10 billion are wasted each year by upward-directed light that only serves to light up the bellies of birds and the undersides of clouds.
That’s a lot of nickels, folks.
So here’s your chance to participate in a study of how bad your neighborhood is. GLOBE at Night is asking willing participants to go outside and measure the darkness of the night sky anytime between March 3 – 16 (although with the full moon on the 28th of February, probably waiting a week or so to avoid the glare from the moon might be advisable) by comparing how bright the constellation of Orion is compared to charts they provide. If you don’t know what Orion looks like, here’s a picture from Hubble Site:
You won’t be able to see it this clearly, I gaurantee it. However, you should be able to find it, towards the south-southwest just after sunset. It’s one of my favorite targets with my telescope. I love to look at the Orion Nebula, inside of which is the Horsehead Nebula. I can see the Orion Nebula quite easily, but the Horsehead Nebula requires darker skies, and possibly a larger scope than I have.
But back to the project. If you’re interested, they’ll take all the input they can gather. It should only take a few minutes, costs nothing, and would be a big help. They had 15,000 measurements taken in 2009, let’s do better this year!