The night sky is beautiful and alluring, even without a telescope or binoculars. Standing in the middle of a dark desert in the middle of the night, gazing up at the billions of stars above our heads, we can feel a connection back through many generations of ancestors who may have enjoyed the same sights.
Our world today is very different from 100 or 1000 years ago. Electric lights are everywhere and while they are obviously useful and have transformed our lives, unfortunately they can also obscure our views of the night sky. I remember the first time I really saw the night sky. I was in Wyoming, there was no moon out. There were so many stars, I got lost. I couldn't locate the constellations I knew from the skies outside Boston. I couldn't believe the beauty of that night.
There's an effort on this week and next, to make a measurement of light pollution around the world. It's called Globe at Night and asks: "Can you see the stars?"
From an email I received: "Join thousands of other students, families and citizen-scientists hunting for stars during February 25 through March 8, 2008. Take part in this international event called GLOBE at Night to observe the nighttime sky and learn more about light pollution around the world.
"GLOBE at Night is an easy observation and reporting activity that takes approximately 15-30 minutes to complete. Citizen-scientists record the brightness of the night sky by matching its appearance toward the constellation Orion with 1 of 7 stellar maps of different limiting magnitude. They then submit measurements on-line at www.globe.gov/globeatnight/. Resulting maps of all observations are created and placed back on-line by the GLOBE at Night staff within the few weeks that follow."
There are directions at the GLOBE website. It's a pretty easy activity, one that I plan to do with my son. Just pick a clear night, go outside about an hour or two after sunset, find the constellation Orion, and match the number of stars you see to one of the pictures on the GLOBE website. This tells the organizers the faintest stellar magnitude (a measure of brightness) that you can see from your house, and from this they can estimate how much light pollution there is in your area.
More information about light pollution is here.