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Dark Skies

While looking at the technology within Frosty Drew Observatory it is easy to forget that our greatest resource after people is our dark skies. Few places in the eastern United States have such consistently dark skies. One very well known science writer claimed that there were no dark skies in New England below the midpoints of Vermont and New Hampshire. Well he is wrong for his very own proof of light pollution [a night time reconnaissance photo of North America taken from high orbit] contradicts him. Amid an eastern seaboard awash in light the land between Point Judith and Westerly is conspicuously black!

What a cherished luxury this is for visitors. Recently, a couple from New York looked up to see a band of shadowy light arcing across the sky. "What", they pointed in wonder "is that?" We answered "Why, it's the Milky Way." They were astounded. They thought that the Milky Way was some sort of a mythical thing far removed from "the real world".

What a wasteful and foolish thing it is to pour uncounted unused megawatts of power into the sky. The only conceivable use for upward directed light is lighting up the underbellies of birds and planes. No lover of the night sky wants to see the sky polluted by artificial light. Upward directed light is wasteful of energy, money and even the light itself. A simple reflector places the light where it is useful; requires smaller cheaper lower wattage bulbs and avoids annoying neighbors. Upward directed light is foolish because useless glare fails at the very function intended. Huge "security lamps", the types designed for industrial loading docks actually decrease the security when used by homeowners. They are so bright that they cast shadows where house breakers can lurk, completely hidden.

Lights where they are not needed actually attract undesirable attention. If a park is closed at night, a huge light on a pond is likely to attract midnight bathers rather than dissuade them. Such lights are harmful to wildlife interrupting natural night time behaviors, mating patterns and reproductive cycles. The extra light stimulates the unwanted growth of pond scum. Local police have told me that gates which had passed unnoticed in the dark became a challenge to pranksters when they were unnecessarily illuminated.

It is obvious that members of Frosty Drew Observatory have a vested interest in keep our fine dark skies dark. However as a taxpayer the idea of illuminating the sky with un-shielded lamps makes no sense. Using larger wattage, shorter lived, more expensive bulbs makes no sense when a simple reflector would do the job better and cheaper. Keeping lights on where they provide no public good simply doesn't make much sense. Lets keep our beautiful dark skies forever. They are part of what keeps southern Rhode Island so lovely.

Have you looked out to the East these evenings about 10 PM? The triangle formed by Jupiter, Saturn and Aldebaran in the middle of the constellation Taurus is stunning. Flying above them is the Plieades and swarming around them is the Hyades cluster. Just below Taurus, Orion the greatest of all of the constellations rises an hour later. Together these two constellation are a complete astronomy course. With a good pair of binoculars on a study support you can count at least 4 moons of Jupiter and 2 or 3 moons of Saturn as well as a glimpse of the famous rings. The open clusters are swarms of juvenile stars. The central star of Orion's sword is not a star but a stellar nursery. Nearby Betelgeuse is approaching the end of its life cycle.

We had the incredible good fortune to recently get nearly perfect conditions for viewing Saturn. At 313 power we saw details that some of us had never seen in as long as 50 years of viewing. We saw the almost invisible innermost ring (the translucent Crepe Ring). At the outer edge we saw the extremely narrow and hard to find Encke Gap. We could see storms on the surface of the planet, more than a half dozen moons, shadows of the planet on the rings and shadows of the rings on the planet. This Fall - particularly during October - will be one of the best times to view Saturn. Its rings are tilted very wide allowing details usually hidden to be seen.

This very same night we also saw huge storms raging across the surface of Jupiter. These storm belts are wider than the Earth and moving two or three times faster than any storm has ever moved on our planet. We could see curlicues and eddies within the storms. We saw its four largest moons as distinct disks. And if this wasn't enough we also saw more than 50 other sky wonders. And who are the "we" that I am talking about? Why visitors to Frosty Drew Observatory - more than 60 of them this night. We hope you'll join them on the next clear moonless night.

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Oct 1, 2000
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Columns
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