Lightscape / Night Sky

View of the earth from space at night, showing the distribution of light pollution
View of the earth from space at night, showing the distribution of light pollution

NOAA/NGDC/DMSP Digital Archive

  • What did we used to do in the days before television and movies?
  • What did we do to amuse ourselves before cards and games?
  • What did we do to learn before there were books?
  • What did we do after the evening meal was cooked over the fire and before we settled in under our animal skins to stay warm for the night?

We probably talked and did whatever tasks we could do in the light of the fire. We could do more once we learned to control fire. But what did we do before fire? We looked at the night sky!

Learning From The Sky
And we wondered. And we learned! There are cycles in the night sky. The moon taught us about months. The sun taught us about years (we already knew about days). With this knowledge we could determine when the growing season was soon to be upon us and we could dependably plant crops. We could leave behind the days of depending on hunting and gathering. With agriculture came the ability to stay in one place and build.

Today we spend our nights indoors. Even if we happen to go camping, we probably spend most of those evening hours in an RV or camper trailer. Maybe we spend a couple of hours around a campfire. There is something comforting and companionable about time spent with family and friends around a fire that connects us to our distant past. But next time let the fire go out and turn off any other sources of light you can and spend some time with the night sky.

Become An Astronomer
The planets move across the sky very much like the sun and the moon except that sometimes they seem to go backwards. If we watch the stars all night long we will see them tracing out circles above us. If we do this often enough we can keep track of the planets and discover their patterns. Throughout the year we may also discover that the star patterns change. We can become: astronomers!

And then we will become frustrated! The lights of our cities will make it very difficult to see and study the night time sky. We might want to get away from our cities and seek out remote dark mountaintops like the ones where they erect the large telescopes.

That should satisfy us and we will be able to see all the stars we could ever desire. But in the process we will have learned why the top astronomers have begun to put telescopes like Hubble into space: They want to get away from the light so they can see ever more distant and faint objects.

Night Sky At Bighorn Canyon
Many of our parks offer us places with dark night time skies. Some parks have even started offering programs at night to learn about the planets and stars or even to view wildlife. Some parks have even started advocating for darker night time skies.

If you camp on Bighorn Lake or at Barry’s Landing, spend some time looking up. No, that does not mean a quick glance. Spend some time really looking. Imagine the power we could save by diming our lights. Think about what we miss seeing at night from under our bright city lights.

Many of us might never see more stars at one time than we do when we spend a dark night in a national park. The experience of that night will dwell in our memory.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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Mailing Address:

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Headquarters Office
PO Box 7458

Fort Smith, MT 59035


(307) 548-5406

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