Lightscape / Night Sky
Photo by Mark Bias
A star-splattered sky is one of nature's grandest spectacles. For those lucky enough to look up on a clear, arid night in a remote location away from artificial lights, the view can be awe-inspiring. Thousands of individual stars and the diffuse smudge of the Milky Way arching across the sky are visible to the naked eye. But as anyone who has augmented their eyesight with a quality pair of binoculars or telescope can attest, what we see with the unaided eye is only the tip of the celestial iceburg. The heavens are alive with planets, nebulae, galaxies, and the mountains of the moon. Of a more transitory nature are "shooting stars" (meteors), appearing briefly but memorably, and comets. As the Earth rotates about its axis and around the sun and through space with the rest of the solar system, these natural pheomena remind us of the infinitely larger universe that surrounds our small planet.
One unfortunate consequence of our modern civilization is that the heavens above are becoming increasingly washed out by artificial light emanating from urban areas. If you've ever driven across the countyside at night, particularly on a cloudy night, you may have noticed that even a mid-sized town is visible by the reflection its lights create on the horizon. In a large metropolitan city at night, all but the moon and a few of the brightest stars are lost in the glare of modern illumination. Some city-bound dwellers may have no idea what a star-filled night is like until they go to a city planetarium!
It's unlikely the vault of the night sky will ever be "restored" to its former glory in the more developed parts of the country, but all is not lost. City lights can be manufactured to produce less glare, and their light can be directed toward the ground where it is needed, instead of spreading out in all directions. Some lights are obviously needed for safety and security reasons, but other lights may be left on for no good reason, and these should be shut off to help cut down on light pollution (and to save energy). Finally, plans can be drafted that purposefully provide for dark conditions in certain areas, such as observatories and sensitive wildlife habitat. As the stars reappear in the evening, whether we see more or fewer of them over time will serve as the best indication of how we are doing at preserving our natural night sky heritage.