Ian Cheney remembers when he first became interested in dark skies.
He’d just moved from rural Maine to New York City, and was amazed at how little of the night sky was visible. In Maine, he could see celestial details such as stars, planets, and the vast Milky Way.
In central Manhattan, all he could see was the moon.
It disturbed him, so he made a film about it.
In The City Dark, Chaney explores the contrast between humanity’s need for light with our ancient desire to see the night sky.
Listen to the story:
Light pollution puts a deep dent in our romantic notions of gazing skyward, but it also affects professional astronomy. Sensitive telescope mirrors amplify available light, whether from 30 million light-years – or 30 miles – distant. The lights of a football field or shopping center can significantly diminish observation capacity at remote mountaintop telescopes.
The International Dark-Sky Association wants to make sure we don’t forget what it’s like to see the night sky.
The Tucson-based organization works with lighting manufacturers and municipalities to promote what’s known as ‘smart’ lighting. Low-pressure sodium lights, for example, can be aimed at a targeted ground area with less wasted light directed upward.
Technology such as smart lighting can only help observations at the MMT Observatory, one of North America’s largest, most-sensitive telescopes. It’s perched atop Mount Hopkins 30 miles south of Tucson, close enough for the city’s lights to affect observations.
Astronomers worry that there are deep consequences for American science. Few new telescope projects are being proposed for the U.S. because our skies are now too bright. The biggest, most ambitious new observatories are planned for remote places like Chile’s Atacama Desert.
The loss of the visible night sky affects more than just science.
Entire generations of city kids have never seen truly seen what’s up there.
Late in Ian Chaney’s film The City Dark, he follows a group of New York City-based boy scouts visiting the wilderness. They look up and, for the first time in their lives, see the Milky Way.
They’re filled with almost speechless amazement.
Such reactions have been happening in humans for thousands of years. Our history is guided by the heavens. It has fueled our science, our romance, our poetry. It still leaves us in wonderment and awe, even if it’s starting to fade.