Seeking darkness in night skies

Seeking darkness in night skies

By By Rod Myers, Naturalist

Celestial viewing in the night sky is not easy in most parts of Rockford and the immediate surrounding area. Business lighting, street lights and home lighting are the culprits that pollute the night sky in watt wash. Yet, there are areas very close to Rockford that have good darkness. The southwest and northwest areas just outside of Rockford are not that bad due to much less development.

One member of the Rockford Amateur Astronomers’ Club who lives five miles from northwest Rockford says he can see the heavens quite well from his place. He has two domed telescopes on his property, so he must have fairly good viewing. This man has planted numerous evergreens that nearly edge his entire yard border. Yes, this is a boon for pine-nesting and/or pine-roosting birds, but its main purpose is to block out neighbors’ lighting. This club member knows the location of every neon yard light in his small subdivision and has coached each light owner on neon etiquette as it pertains to easing the stresses of a telescope user. Besides, conifers can’t do everything.

For those Rockford-area astronomy buffs who seek really dark skies, the road points north 20-some miles to a farmer’s old quarry on high-hilled land. The height of location means that even the quarry floor is above regional lighting, what little there is, and the quarry walls block that out. Many stargazers use it, and some take astrophotographs there. One photo snapped from there by August Orlandi made it to the pages of Astronomy magazine last year.

Many of the photos are passed around at the Rockford Amateur Astronomers’ monthly club meeting. At the last meeting, I recall looking at a pack of pictures taken by Mr. Orlandi. I remember having to ask what each shot was of. “That’s the Andromeda Galaxy,” Augie said laughingly.

“Oh,” I said with a Mars-red face. “That’s the galaxy you can see with the naked eye, right,” I said loudly, trying to save face. About another photo, I commented, “This one looks like Mr. Ed,” trying to goad Augie. “That’s because it’s the Horse Head Nebula,” Augie replied, catching a whiff of my verbal trap.

There’s a sense of real camaraderie among local amateur astronomers who brave our area’s night skies. Winter brings out the best in these people, some of whom endure to the wee hours’ subzero temperatures, the freezing up of telescopic equipment and acute coffee shortages.

Descriptive sentences by star gazers describing the night sky always kick my dark gray matter. This is my favorite, and I don’t remember who said it. “The night sky is like a huge, black canvas painted by an artist who’s a cross between the old George Bush and the late Carl Sagan because the night sky’s been painted with billions and billions of points of light.”

To help keep the dark areas in our area’s night skies, we must curb development. Environmentalists and astronomy lovers see eye to eye on this issue. Nationally and internationally, environmentalists have been joined by astronomy lovers in the fight to save wild areas, and astronomy lovers have been joined by environmentalists in the fight to keep areas close to important telescopes free of development, keeping the observatories in the dark.

The Rockford Amateur Astronomers’ Club meets at the Lockwood Observatory in Lockwood Park, which is located at the edge of Rockford’s northwest side. There are a few homes scattered in the area, but mostly it’s surrounded by several large parks and farms. This means the skies are relatively dark. But there was a problem—the park district’s parking lot lights at Lockwood.

The Rockford Park District was using parking lot lights that were improperly shielded; the lights were not pointed toward the ground, and they were broad-spectrum lights. The Astronomy Club agreed to educate the park district on using telescope-friendly parking lights if the park district agreed to do something about it.

First of all, don’t point parking lot lights anywhere but down. You want to light up the ground, not the sky. If the light is pointed up, it causes glares and blind spots, which actually helps criminals. Shields on parking lot lights must not be too high. This lets light escape upward, where you don’t want it. Broad-spectrum lights cover a large area on the spectral band, and the numerous light waves are too big. This makes it difficult for telescope light filters to filter out the light.

The Astronomy Club instructed the park district, and the district put in low-pressure sodium lights, which are narrow-beam, which means they have a narrow spectral beam, making it easy for the telescope filter to filter it out. Then they lowered their light shields and pointed the lights down toward the parking lot.

It costs more to purchase and install pressure sodium lights, but they cost 90 percent less to operate. And wouldn’t you know it, now the city’s converting to them. Maybe the skies over Rockford will be darker some day, or, I mean, some night.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!