The less light pollution there is, the more exciting the night sky becomes. When excess artificial light shines upward towards the sky, the energy is not only wasted, but it drowns out light from all but the brightest stars. Without this misdirected light, it is possible to see the sky lit with an uncountable number of stars, the milky trail of the rest of our galaxy emblazoned across the sky. The Andromeda galaxy, meteors, the Aurora Borealis and even the places where new suns of distant suns are born can be seen.
However, in a world filled with an increasing number of urban areas, the sight of the Milky Way is becoming increasingly rare. The annual star count, organised by the Campaign for Dark Skies and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, reveals how few of us experience the really dark skies required for really great stargazing. By asking amateur astronomers from around the country to count the number of stars they can see within the constellation of Orion, they found that less than 5% of us count over 31, an indication of really dark skies.
Light pollution also affects professional astronomers- the problem of misdirected light does not go away when using a telescope. Even though telescopes can magnify the night sky picture many times over, just like our eyes they can’t distinguish the faint light coming from the sky from the brighter artificial lights coming from earth. To find skies dark enough, observatories are often built in far flung countries, requiring astronomers to travel or use equipment remotely in order to continue their research into the mysteries of the universe.
In recent years, the International Dark Sky Association has begun recognising Dark Sky Communities, Parks and Reserves as part of a growing campaign to preserve the darkness of the night sky. Scotland led the way in the UK, with Galloway forest park in Southern Scotland becoming the first Dark Sky Park in the UK in 2009. Last year, it was joined by the Dark Sky Community on island of Coll in the Inner Hebrides.
Leading the effort to gain recognition as a dark sky place in both cases was Steve Owens, member of the International Dark Sky Association and Dark Sky Consultant. He brought together local communities, astronomers, lighting engineers and local authorities to regulate light pollution and measure the darkness levels of the area. The result is that Scotland’s famous landscapes now have some of the best dark sky places in the world to add to it’s list of attractions.
Steve Owens, who is also the author of ‘Stargazing for Dummies’, will come to Edinburgh on Monday 3rd February 2014 to give a public lecture on ‘Scotland’s Dark Sky Places’. The lecture is at the Quaker Meeting house 7.30-8.30pm and is FREE to attend and open to all. Click here to book your free place, or here to find out about the other lectures in the Edinburgh and SE Scotland British Science Association public lecture series.
This article was written by Ellen Young for the Edinburgh and South East Branch of the British Science Association.