Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

No Stars Over Nashville

Howdy y'all!

Okay so after another missed post by the automatic poster, I give up.  And that's how I find myself sitting in a hotel room in Nashville, writing this entry.

I'll be on the road most of this month, actually.  Having a school-age child, this is our chance to go on vacation before the school year begins again.  So far, I've spent a week in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and now I'm in the middle of a week in Nashville.

I grew up in New York City, where a night filled with stars meant you were either seeing a Broadway show or you were in the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan.  I can remember being a kid and being so excited for summer and the return of the Summer Triangle - three bright stars that I could pretty reliably find in evening sky.  I knew the Big Dipper and Orion only from my many visits to the Hayden.  The Moon was a well-known friend, of course, and I could spot planets, but frequently couldn't tell which was which.

Since moving to Virginia, where the skies are much darker, even with as much growth as there's been in the Hampton Roads area, I've naturally come to know as much about the real sky as I do in the planetarium.  The real sky is different from the planetarium sky of course, because the real sky is...real!  It's big!  And things twinkle!  And you can see satellites and meteors and all sorts of stuff that's kind of hard (and often distracting) to simulate in the planetarium environment.

Whenever I travel, I try to take some time to check out the local skies, wherever I am.  Chadds Ford was a nice place to stargaze, once I drove away from the main roads.  I didn't take long to find an area with pretty much no lights at all and beautifully dark skies.  Wilmington, Delaware is the nearest major city, and the sky glow from it was largely unnoticeable thanks to some nearer object shielding me.  Sky glow, the excess light thrown up into the sky by artificial lighting used by people, is the stargazer's great nemesis.   It washes out the sky, and obscures from our view much of what we should be able to see.  So many of us now live near cities that most people, at least here in the United States, have never seen the Milky Way, the beautiful cloudy band of light that stretches across our sky every evening.  It's our view of our galaxy as seen from the inside, and it's amazing.  I got to see it in Chadds Ford, thanks to a clear night and a fairly open area with no streetlights.

Here in Nashville, I'm not so lucky.  Nashville is Music City USA, and it's a busy, fun, and exciting place.  But with all that comes the inevitable light pollution problem that so many have.  I've seen the Moon here thus far, but that's it.  The next two nights are supposed to be cooler and clearer than the sky has been so far - I'm hoping to spot a little more in the sky tonight.

Light pollution is a problem that can be solved - and so easily!  It even saves us money! All we need to do is make sure the lights we need for safety and security and fun are shielded - that is, they are protected so no light is wasted by shining up into the sky.  After all, light that shines up just lights us birds and airplanes and the sky, so why bother spending money on that?

Later this month, I'll be in Grenloch, New Jersey.  My folks live there, and I know those skies pretty well.  Sadly, the Garden State is losing its sky as rapidly as it loses its rural areas.  Here's hoping that someday we can reclaim those skies.  It isn't too late.

Wherever you go this summer, may the skies above be clear and light pollution free!
Until next time,
Carpe noctem (and yee-hah!),

PS: Hey!  Don' forget the annual Perseid meteor shower is underway!  We're officially past the peak, but you should still be able to see meteors in the evening any time after the Sun goes down.  The darker your sky, the more you will be able to see.  Just get outside and look!  No telescope or binoculars needed!

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