Programs to Involve the Public in Dark Skies Awareness during the International Year of Astronomy

“Dark Skies Awareness” is one of 11 Global Cornerstone Projects during the 2009 International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) and “Dark Skies are a Universal Resource” is one of 9 key programs during IYA2009. The goal of “Dark Skies” is to raise the level of public knowledge about adverse impacts of excess artificial lighting on local environments and help more people appreciate the ongoing loss of a dark night sky for much of the world’s population. Toward this end, a range of programs and resource materials has been developed. Everyone is invited to use any of these as local solutions to a global problem.

For this IYA2009 Cornerstone Project, the International Astronomical Union is collaborating worldwide with partners in dark-sky and environmental education, such as the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) and the Starlight Initiative. The project is fostering three main citizen-scientist programs to measure light pollution at a local level. These programs take the form of “star hunts” or “star counts”, providing people with a fun and direct way to acquire heightened awareness about light pollution through firsthand observations of the night sky. Together the three programs will span the entire year: GLOBE at Night (March 16-28, 2009), Great World Wide Star Count (Oct. 9-23, 2009), How Many Stars (January, February, April through September, November and December).

Radio Frequency Interference, or RFI, is the radio equivalent of light pollution. The Quiet Skies program introduces the need for quiet skies to the public through a kit-loan program to schools and museums. Participants measure the RFI levels in their communities and enter their measurements into a database. One goal of the program is to display graphically the results, similar to the striking “Earth at Night” light pollution image.

The Great Light Switch Out program encourages homeowners to remove and replace their residential light fixtures with ones that are energy efficient and dark sky friendly. The IDA provides a Homeowner’s Guide to Outdoor Lighting on fixture recommendations and suggestions for retail outlets at which to purchase these fixtures.

For online interactions, MySpace and Facebook web pages introduce new audiences to dark-sky issues. With a Second Life® (SL) destination, visitors will interact with an outdoor lighting design and make changes to lessen glare, light trespass, and sky glow. At present, adults can visit a recreation of Galileo’s villa in Arcetri, just outside Florence. Above this platform in SL is an urban street scene that allows visitors to switch between good and bad lighting to see the impact of their actions. These interim sites, hosted by NASA CoLab, are housed within a 3D hologrid, which will move to the IYA Island for 2009.

People advocating dark skies preservation are invited to promote their dark skies programs, events, and resources by creating a 5-10 minute audio podcast to submit to the IYA “365 Days of Astronomy” podcasts.

The Let There Be Night planetarium program takes advantage of the interactive capabilities of small and portable domes to advocate dark skies and to train participants for star-hunting programs like GLOBE at Night. The presentation options also include a Pacific northwest nation’s story noting the balance between day and night, a demonstration about shielding lights, an in-dome reading of the book “There Once Was a Sky Full of Stars,” and original content celebrating Galileo’s discoveries. The planetarium show is part of a 2 DVD set that contains a multitude of existing dark sky resources generously contributed with permission, including 2 videos: one, an introduction to outdoor lighting issues called “Dark Matters”, and the other on “Using a Sky Quality Meter” for GLOBE at Night.

Displays, posters and brochures are wonderful ways for disseminating light pollution education to communities during public events. Topics cover wildlife, energy, public health, safety and security, and astronomy.

The Dark Skies Discovery Sites (DSDS) program seeks to establish permanent relatively dark locations (e.g., rural club-based observatories) where the public can be educated about light pollution, while being introduced to the wonders of the night sky that people have either lost or are losing at their more light-polluted residences.

The Earth and Sky Photo Contest asks amateur photographers to combine Earth and sky in one digital photo “to see humanity as a family living together on a single planet amidst the vast ocean of our universe,” as well as to impress the public with the beauty and importance of dark skies.

Millions of people in cities around the globe turned their lights off for one hour on Saturday, March 29, 2008, to make an unprecedented and highly visible global statement in support for action on climate change, energy conservation, and light pollution. The World Wildlife Fund is gearing up for next year’s Earth Hour on Saturday, March 28, 2009, from 8:30–9:30 pm, on the last night of the 2009 GLOBE at Night campaign.

During weekends or periods of time throughout 2009, dark sky observing will be highlighted from within National Parks with near-pristine skies in a program called “Nights in the (National) Parks”. Activities will include workshops on learning the night sky with planispheres and star atlases, workshops on the tools of astronomy and observing techniques, workshops on star counting programs, and daytime and nighttime viewing as well as lectures on light pollution and astronomy.

To promote the establishment of special protection areas for natural night skies and to honor exceptional commitment to preservation of darkness, the IDA with a number of international collaborators and reviewers have established the International Dark Sky Communities, Parks, and Reserves certification program.

National Dark-Sky Week (NDSW) is an event, usually occurring in April, during which people in the United States are encouraged to turn out unnecessary outdoor lights in order to reduce light pollution temporarily. NDSW and the Starlight Initiative are cooperating in the launch of the “World Night in Defence of Starlight” as the first night of the International Dark Sky Week (IDSW), April 20-26, 2009.

In summary, the IYA Dark Skies Awareness Cornerstone Project offers a variety of venues with which people can easily get involved in preserving dark skies. For more information, or to learn how to get involved with any of these programs, e-mail Connie Walker (cwalker@astronomy2009.org) with “Dark Skies Awareness” in the subject line.

IYA2009 promises to be a great year, especially if you choose to be involved in a Dark Skies Awareness program. Consider being a part of a local solution to a global problem. Together, we can improve our night sky and maintain it as a natural heritage for the generations to come.