Losing stars

I’ve mentioned before that our family likes to stargaze. Very often we’ll set up the telescope in the front lawn and find Mars or the moons of Jupiter or some other astronomical feature. Even though we’re in the close-in suburbs of Dallas, we get a decent view of the more prominent objects.

However, for the Perseid Meteor Shower, we figured we had too much light pollution to get a decent viewing, so we went out to a state park about an hour north of us.  And the sky was many times darker than our own backyard. When we first got there, we were really impressed with all the stars we could see, as well as the beautiful storm in the clouds to the south of us.

We woke everyone up at 4:30 and dragged our air mattress out into the night to view the shower as close to peak as possible before dawn. It was an impressive show. We were able to see a meteor every couple of minutes and a fireball every five minutes or so, including one so bright we could see a substantial smoke trail.

But even though the display was wonderful, after a few hours I realized the night sky wasn’t nearly as dark as my first impressions comparing it to my light saturated neighborhood. The city glow from the south certainly impaired the view, as well as the lights from the smaller surrounding communities. While we could see many stars, it wasn’t nearly as many as we saw last spring camping at Possum Kingdom Lake and nowhere near what we saw at the Grand Canyon.

I grew up visiting the Davis Mountains and the McDonald Observatory regularly.  Even though I lived in a city, a short drive brought me to areas with a beautiful inky black sky with the Milky Way splayed across it. I can count on my fingers the number of times my children have been able to see the Milky Way.

Coates Astrophotography: Milky Way &emdash; Washburn-Norlands Living History Center

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More than 80% of Americans live in urban and suburban areas, compared to about 50% worldwide. For those of us in these brightly lit areas, the idea of “innumerable stars” is only theoretical. Our stars are few and dim. We’ve lost a great deal by lighting up our world. That isn’t to say I’m a Luddite. Technology has brought great benefits, but nothing is without consequences.  We’d be wise to look at the impact of our technology, for good and ill, and see if we can ameliorate the negative consequences.

night lights


What can we do? Well, I’m going to start by looking into getting the hideously awful street light that pours light into our house every night replaced, which is basically part of asking your local community to adopt better (money saving!) lighting policies. In addition to reducing light pollution and preserving what dark skies we have, we can also make an effort to get away from the lights of the city and enjoy the sky. No amount of technology or creature comforts can compare to the glories of the expanse; it truly is an irreplaceable experience.

What does the night sky look like from your backyard? Were you able to see the Perseids?

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