Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Astronomers, Texans Look to the Stars Amid Increasing Light Pollution

Staff at Reimers Observatory and other Texan stargazers spread appreciation for the stars and awareness of what conceals them

By Austin Price, Fall 2017

Once upon a time, there was an evil and greedy king. He fell in love with the night sky, so he took it for himself, hoarding it in a magic teapot until the world forgot its splendor.

So reads Amy Jackson from her children’s book Cassandra and the Night Sky. She reads under the red stargazing-friendly lights of the Reimers Observatory, where she works as an astronomy educator. In her book, a young girl named Cassandra comes into possession of the king’s teapot. She unleashes the starry sky, meets the characters of the constellations and strives to share the wonders of the night sky with the rest of the world.

Jackson and the rest of the staff at Reimers Observatory aim to do no less. Though their greedy king is much less tangible: encroaching light pollution from a rapidly growing Austin.

Reimers Observatory is a two-telescope observation platform at Reimers Ranch Park in Dripping Springs. Well enough out of the sky-glow of nearby Bee Cave to see the Milky Way on a clear night, Reimers Ranch offers a not-to-distant opportunity for Austinites to see the night sky.

“I think people need a place to come and see the stars,” says Michael Brewster, park supervisor at Reimers Ranch Park. “Commune with nature in the daytime and see the stars at nighttime.”

A few years ago, Brewster started the night sky program at the Reimers Observatory. Every Friday and Saturday night, weather permitting and excluding the weekend of the full moon, the retractable roof of the Reimers Observatory opens to a twinkling starry sky. As many as 30 guests can come look through professional-grade telescopes at star clusters, nebulae and planets and learn about the constellations from a team of astronomers and night sky lovers among the Reimers Ranch staff.

This year, the Reimers Ranch Park staff is applying to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) to become a certified Dark Sky Park. That means that the Reimers Observatory, just 25 miles from the I-35 corridor, would join the ranks of other parks in the Big Bend region of Texas as an internationally recognized park free enough from light pollution to run dark sky programs and host stargazers from around the world. The closest current IDA Dark Sky Park to Austin is Enchanted Rock.

But the astronomers at Reimers Ranch haven’t forgotten what comes with being so close to the city.

They seek to push back on the impending light pollution by a twofold strategy. First, they aim to spread an appreciation for the night sky to the people who attend their weekly programs, particularly to children.

“We just try to make sure that we can translate what we know from our science backgrounds so that anyone, especially younger audiences, can have an appreciation for the sky that we have forgotten in the most recent years,” says Jessica Wigley, astronomy educator at the Reimers Observatory and recent graduate from the astronomy program at the University of Texas at Austin. As a student, Wigley led public star parties on the roof of the astronomy department on UT’s campus.

They also advocate for responsible outdoor lighting.

Scientists have found that light pollution increases at a rate of two percent each year. Just last month, a team led by Dr. Christopher Kyba of the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany, published the results of a study in Science Advances that explains their findings over five years of reading images from a satellite operated jointly by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Kyba’s team noted that the Earth’s surface gains two percent per year in both quantity of emitted light and surface area that is artificially light.

The fastest rates of light pollution increase, writes Dr. Kyba in his article, occur in places that didn’t have much light to start with.

“We live in an area of Travis County where it’s been traditionally very dark for, well, forever really,” says Brewster. “The development is coming in and we’re in a period of transition.”

Brewster is referring to the massive growth in population that has hit Austin, one of America’s fastest growing cities, in the last two decades.

“There’s going to be complete overhaul of what this area of the county looks like,” he says.

Reimers Ranch works at a local level to advance the message of light pollution that many national and multinational organizations are working to make commonplace. In 2006, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, the national center for ground-based nighttime astronomy in the United States, launched an international citizen-science campaign called Globe at Night to spread awareness of the impacts of light pollution.

Globe at Night invites citizen-scientists – anyone with a particular interest in the night sky – to submit night sky brightness observations through their computer or, more recently, their smartphones. Each year, the program helps its participants pick a constellation on which to focus, plot their latitude and longitude and rate their view of that constellation according to a 1-7 magnitude chart provided on the Globe at Night website or phone app.

Most importantly, the participating citizen-scientists are supposed to note what they can observe that may be affecting their dark sky view. Urban observations often note things like strip center parking lots, stadium lights and downtown building lights. Suburbanites contend with streetlights and outdoor lighting on private residences.

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“You know, for all of human history people have been able to go out and look at the sky,” says Brewster. “It started all sorts of mythologies. The idea that many people aren’t able to go outside their backyard and see the stars is astonishing.”

“And yet, we’ve been completely divorced ever since the lightbulb got invented.”

Jackson wheels the six-foot telescope around to face Saturn. She consults a chart as she points the lens in the exact spot to get a view of the planet’s surface through the viewfinder.

“I studied physics in college and was interested in astronomy, and one of the main reasons was I’m just curious about my place in the universe,” she says. “I think every human being is fundamentally curious about where we come from, where we are going, why this is all here, what this all means.”

She steps back to look up at the Milky Way unaided by the telescope. The crickets chirp in the darkness as attendees at the observatory silently look through the telescope or simply look up at the vast sky with the naked eye.

“Getting people to come outside and look at the constellations — and learn about how these things are what they are and what we know and we’ve learned so far — helps them feel connected to the universe and connected to the world,” says Jackson.

“And then they start to feel connected to each other.”


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