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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.

Marylanders of the Night Sky

In my home state, the small, over-populated state of Maryland, we are not really that well known for astronomy.  Maryland has a population of about 5.8 million people encompassing only 12,407 sq. mi., making it the 5th densest state in terms of population per square mile.  All those people crammed into such a small area makes for horrible stargazing conditions across most of the state.  If you look at this light pollution map you would have to drive at least an hour to get from Baltimore to the nearest patch of yellow either up north or across the Chesapeake Bay.  Our biggest (and perhaps only) claim to major astronomical fame is probably the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.  That being said, I had no idea that one of the more important astronomical observations in recent history was made out in western Maryland.

On April 18th, 1972 amateur astronomer and Deep Creek State Park employee Gus Johnson was out with his telescope giving a tour of M100, the Virgo Cluster, to the minister of his church when he spotted an unusually bright star in the cluster.  He didn’t remember seeing it ever before or recalling it from any of the charts he used.  Mr. Johnson went back out the next night to observe the strange star again and compared it to several charts of M100.  There was nothing that bright to be found in that specific region of the cluster.  He immediately called the American Association of Variable Star Observers and alerted them of a possible supernova.  The AAVSO sent the word out and it was soon confirmed by Asiago and McGraw-Hill observatories.  Over the next several years with the use of powerful instruments such as the NASA Chandra X-ray telescope, scientists believe that Mr. Johnson witnessed the birth of a baby black hole.  That would make Mr. Johnson just the third person ever to have discovered a black hole outside of our galaxy by direct observation.

Mr. Johnson, now 73, said in an interview with the Washington Post in 2010 that he prefers to use smaller telescopes and “non-computerized” systems.  He owns a dozen scopes ranging from 1.6″ to 8″ so he by no means is on the cutting edge of telescope technology but he considers himself privileged to have observed something so rare and completely by accident.  He is proud of his discovery and hopes to make another eventually, but he isn’t holding his breath.

Mr. Johnson works as a volunteer at the Deep Creek Park in Garrett County, Maryland.  There he leads various astronomy programs, does maintenance work, and leads nature walks.  He is an avid reader of Sky & Telescope magazine and has a stash of 55 years worth of issues at his home!  He still uses the chart from the February 1954 issue for finding galaxies in the Coma-Virgo cluster.  My hat is off to you Mr. Johnson, you’ve done us Marylanders proud!  May you continue to point your telescopes skyward for many years to come!

Gus Johnson and his black hole discovering scope Credit: Washington Post

Great Night for Stargazing

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!

Quadrantid Meteor Shower 1/4/12

The Quadrantid meteor shower has a reputation of being feast or famine.  Last night (this morning) was a famine, at least from my partially dark sky in Jarrettsville, MD.  Maryland is arguably one of the worst states for dark skies because it is the fifth most densely populated state in the country and all of the major cities are so close together so there’s almost nowhere in the state to go to escape the light pollution from Baltimore or Washington.  Without driving four hours to Deep Creek Lake in far western Maryland, Jarrettsville, in northern Harford County one of the best places in the state for dark skies.

However, I did see a handful of meteors from my lawn chair in the 0º wind chilled temperature.  I was expecting a lot more, closer the average of about 120 per hour but I did get a privileged glimpse of one of them in my binoculars which was pretty cool!  I was using my binos to look at the Bootes constellation which was the radiant point of the shower.  I was in the process of moving the view from star to star when one of the meteors shot across my field of view at almost the same speed as I was moving my binos!  I got about a one second shot of it before it disintegrated in the atmosphere.  That was pretty much the highlight of the night besides running an eskimo lap around the field to keep my body from turning into solid ice.

Now astronomers will have to wait until late April for the next big chance to view another meteor shower, the Lyrrids.  A friend of mine suggested to me yesterday that I should take a camping trip to the Monongahela Forest in West Virginia for the Lyrrids which is probably a pretty good idea.  Just maybe when it’s a bit more above freezing.

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