August sky from Keeble Observatory
Ah, progress! Who has not thrilled to see the impressive lights of a city as you fly into the airport? Who has not gazed in wonder at the composite image of Earth at night – humankind’s conquest of the continents readily visible as the glow from cities clearly marked? Ah, progress! Ah, development!
However, the sad fact is that what you see from sky and space means that you cannot see sky or space from the ground! Astronomers call it light pollution, and it’s as insidious in its own way as toxic chemicals. It won’t harm your body, but it just may harm your soul. Who in the city recognizes more than a few of the brightest constellations? The Big Dipper, maybe. Orion, if you’re lucky. Who has seen the glowing arc of the Milky Way, bisecting the sky as the ancients saw it – free from the glare and glow of modernity? The rhythm of the sky – stars, planets, and galaxies – has been part of human culture since our distant ancestors left the trees on the African plains. And our cultural heritage is being inexorably taken from us in the name of progress.
What do we see, instead? Ashland’s glow is seen from Montpelier. Richmond is seen as far away as Charlottesville. Fredericksburg blots out to the north what Kings Dominion blots out to the south for our friends in Caroline County. It’s sad, and it’s unnecessary. Outdoor lighting, legitimately employed, should illuminate the ground instead of the sky. Think about it – if you can see the light bulb, that is light which inhibits your ability to see what the bulb is supposed to illuminate. Poorly placed bright lights which create shadows where unknown individuals can lurk are detracting from night-time security, rather than enhancing it. And, such lighting is wasteful and expensive. What good business is it to waste money on lights which don’t do what they’re supposed to do?
Several years ago, both Hanover County and the Town of Ashland made small steps to control light pollution. Zoning ordinances were amended to include limits on the light level allowed to splash from one property to the next. Billboards, commercial signage, and even flags are to be illuminated from above rather than from below. Business signs were to be turned off when the business was closed. Simple steps, which even save money, can also enhance the quality of life for all of us by making visible again the wonders of the night sky. Sadly, whether through ignorance, or because our public servants are too overburdened to enforce them, or because too few people make their voices heard, these lighting measures are largely ignored. New signs, new billboards, or even alterations to existing signs and billboards are supposed to comply with these common-sense restrictions. But, sadly, we see wasteful lights encroaching on our common right to see clearly the splendors which are just beyond their glow.
For more information about light pollution, and what you can do to stop it, check out the web site of the International Dark Sky Association at http://www.darksky.org. You can also follow the links there to see images of the Earth at night, to see for yourself what we’re talking about here.
As I write this, we are waiting for the launch of the shuttle Columbia, which is to deploy the Chandra X-Ray telescope. Next month we’ll discuss what this new eye on the sky is expected to show us.
Lunar phases for August: Last quarter at 1:27 pm on the 4th; New Moon at 7:08 am on the 11th; First quarter at 9:47 pm on the 18th; Full on the 26th at 7:48 pm.
Venus plunges towards the horizon at sunset, about 10 degrees from the Sun on the first, it will set at the same time on the 11th, and then be gone from the evening sky. Have no fear, however, since Venus re-emerges in the pre-dawn sky at the end of the month. It will rise about a half hour before the Sun on the 27th, almost an hour ahead of sunrise by the 31st. Use binoculars to see Venus as a bright, thin crescent. Mars will be the brightest evening planet visible once Venus disappears, SSW at dusk. It’s at inferior conjunction (between us and the Sun) on the 20th. Jupiter and Saturn rise 3 ½ to 4 hours after sunset, making them bright and easily visible towards the southern pre-dawn twilight. We miss the opportunity to see a total solar eclipse on the 11th, though if you happen to be vacationing in Europe you can catch the path of totality across southern England, northern France, and into Germany, Austria, Hungary, etc.
An overhead view at mid month at around 10:00 pm (assuming, of course, that you can see the sky!) finds Vega almost directly overhead in Lyra. This bright, young star is a mere 26 light years distant, and featured prominently in Carl Sagan’s novel "Contact," and in the Jody Foster movie based on the book. Close by Vega, use binoculars or a small telescope to examine an obvious binary, and with good seeing conditions you may be able to resolve this double into four – two closely spaced pairs known as the Double Double. Also nearby, in the same constellation, a clear night may permit you to see the planetary nebula known as the Ring. This is the remnant of a star much like our Sun, which blasted its outer layers into space after becoming a red giant. What’s left at the center of the nebula is known as a white dwarf – nearly the mass of the Sun collapsed into a sphere the size of the Earth. To the east and southeast we also see Deneb (in Cygnus) and Altair (in Aquila). To the west we find the bright star Arcturus in Bootes. About a third of the way from Vega to Arcturus is the faint constellation Hercules. Binoculars on a clear night (without moonlight and away from light pollution) may permit you to find the globular cluster known as M13. This is a group of about 10,000 old stars orbiting our own Galaxy. Globular clusters may be the oldest constituents of the Milky Way system, with ages on the order of 10 – 12 billion years. The Milky Way itself, representing the disk of our home Galaxy, traces a faint path from the northeast through Deneb and Altair bright red Antares to the south. Rising to the northeast is the nearby Andromeda galaxy. A mere 2 million light years away, this is the most distant object visible to the naked eye. Like our own Galaxy, this is an immense spiral containing over 100 billion stars. It is only one of over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe!