Light Pollution is Obscuring the Night Sky. RIP Stargazing

A startling analysis from Globe at Night — a citizen science program run by NSF’s NOIRLab — concludes that stars are disappearing from human sight at an astonishing rate. Image Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, P. Marenfeld

A citizen science initiative called Globe at Night has some sobering news for humanity. Our artificial light is drowning out the night sky for more and more people. And it’s happening more rapidly than thought.

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Many of the World’s Greatest Observatories Suffer from Some Light Pollution

Night sky in the African country of Namibia. (Credit: Fabio Falchi; Licence Type: Attribution (CC BY 4.0))

In a recent study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, an international team of researchers examined the levels of light pollution at astronomical observatories from around the world to better understand how artificial light is impacting night sky observations in hopes of taking steps to reduce it. But how important is it to preserve the scientific productivity of astronomical observatories from the dangers of light pollution, as noted in the study’s opening statement?

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BlueWalker-3 Unfolds, Brightens One-Hundredfold

BlueWalker-3
An artist's impression of BlueWalker-3 unfolded in orbit. Credit: ASTSpaceMobile

After months of waiting, we’re getting our first good looks at a fully deployed BlueWalker-3.

A new high-profile satellite may now be visible in a sky over you. We recently wrote about AST Space Mobile’s new BlueWalker-3 satellite, and its potential to be among the brightest objects in the night sky. Launched on September 10th, 2022 an a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket along with the Starlink Group 4-2 batch, BlueWalker-3 is the first of the company’s planned mega-constellation of 110 BlueBird satellites set to be deployed by the end of 2024 for worldwide communication.

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You Can Help Measure Light Pollution with Your Phone

Urban sprawl and accompanying light pollution is an issue for both astronomers and fireflies. This view shows the light dome from the city of Duluth, Minn. 20 miles north of town. Credit: Bob King

There’s no question that light pollution is a growing problem. Thankfully many scientists and advocates are working for change. And you can be a part of that change with a simple app that you can download to catalog the street lights in your neighborhood.

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How Could we Light our Cities and Still See the Night Sky?

Standing beside the Milky Way. Drowing out the night sky blocks us off from nature, and that's not good for humans. Credit: P. Horálek/ESO

The night sky is a part of humanity’s natural heritage. Gazing up at the heavens is a unifying act, performed by almost every human that’s ever lived. Haven’t you looked up at the night sky and felt it ignite your sense of wonder?

But you can’t see much night sky in a modern city. And the majority of humans live in cities now. How can we regain our heritage? Can quiet contemplation make a comeback?

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Light Pollution is Making it Harder for Animals to Find Their Way at Night

Ah, the majestic dung beetle. The pinnacle of evolution. In all seriousness, these little critters are incredibly sophisticated navigators who have, for millennia, used the night sky to guide them about their business. But light pollution is making their lives more difficult by limiting their ability to navigate by the stars. Other nocturnal creatures, including some birds and moths, may be facing similar challenges.

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The Streetlights in an Entire County Were Swapped to LEDs. Light Pollution got Worse

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” – this famous paraphrase of Scottish poet Robert Burns sometimes sums up human ingenuity.  That is exactly what happened when a county in Washington State decided to replace all of its county-owned streetlights with LEDs at least partially in an effort to combat light pollution.  New research shows that they actually made the light pollution worse.

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Astronomers Measure the Background Brightness of the Night sky Across the World. Canary Islands are the Darkest in the Survey

Being able to look up at a clear, dark sky is becoming more and more rare in the rich world.  Authors, artists, and even scientists have started to express concern about what our lack of daily exposure to a dark night time sky might mean for our psyche and our sense of place in the universe.  Now a team has collected photometric data at 44 sites around the world in an attempt to quantify how dark the night sky actually is at different places on the globe. So where was the darkest place surveyed?  The Canary Islands.

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Satellites Have Brightened the Skies by About 10% Across the Entire Planet

starlink satellite streaks
An image of the NGC 5353/4 galaxy group made with a telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, USA on the night of Saturday 25 May 2019. The diagonal lines running across the image are trails of reflected light left part of a Starlink satellite constellation.

New research has found that as the number of satellites in Earth orbit continues to increase, their accumulated light pollution will brighten the night sky – making it much harder to do fundamental astronomy.

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Most light pollution isn’t coming from streetlights

Zodiacal light tilts upward from the western horizon and points at the Pleiades star cluster in this photo taken March 19, 2009. Clouds at bottom reflect light pollution from nearby Duluth, Minn. U.S. Credit: Bob King

Light pollution is the arch nemesis of astronomy, spoiling both the enjoyment of the night sky and the professional study of our universe. For years we’ve assumed that streetlights are the main culprit behind light pollution, but a recent study has shown that streetlights contribute no more than 20% of all the pollution, and if we want to solve this vexing astronomical problem, we have to think harder.

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