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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Are you “Lost in Light”?

By Phil Plait
Lost in Light II

Oh my, this has been quite a week. A lot of poisonous things are happening politically in my beloved country. I am quite politically active — if you follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or read any of my political posts, you know this — and the past few days have been no exception.

And while I will not stop nor even rest for long, there are times when a short break is needed to detox the brain, what has become popularly known as “self-care.” So, as I sat in front of my computer, I thought to myself: “How about a beautiful time-lapse video, something with gorgeous imagery, uplifting music, interesting science, and a message that can be used to make the world better?”

So I searched my emails to see if anyone had sent me a note about such a video, and lo, I found just such a message. It was from photographer Sriram Murali, who, like me, is concerned that we’re losing the night sky. Light pollution — light from buildings, fixtures, and so on sent needlessly up instead of down, where we need it — is stealing the stars from us. To document this, he went to various locations with different levels of dark skies, and shot the same part of the sky from each to compare the view.

And to do so, he chose a celestial icon, something that almost anyone will recognize: Orion. The result is not only lovely, but (if you pardon the pun) eye-opening. So watch “Lost in Light II, and you know the drill: Make it full screen, high-res, and enjoy the music, too:

Ooph. As the video progresses, and the sky gets darker, so many treasures become visible. Now, of course the camera captures more than the eye does; digital detectors are more sensitive, and time exposures get deeper and show fainter objects. Still, the lesson is told. Orion has bright enough stars to see even in pretty light-polluted skies, but the real power of it ramps up as the sky background light ramps down (incidentally, Murali made a video he called "Lost in Light," the precursor to this one, which showed the Milky Way in various conditions, but found it wasn't resonating since it's not as familiar a sight, so he redid it with Orion).

There’s a lot to look at in the video. Did you see Barnard’s Loop, a sweeping reddish glowing arc of hydrogen gas curling around the lower left of Orion? Not before the sky got to level 4 at worst. How about the Orion Nebula, the middle “star” in Orion’s dagger? In the first parts of the video it does look like a star, but as the sky grows darker, its true nature as a premier star-forming gas cloud becomes more obvious.

I enjoyed seeing geosynchronous satellites, too: satellites orbiting so high off the equator that they orbit in the same period it takes the Earth to spin. As the stars move, the satellites appear to remain stationary, and they’re obvious if you let the stars flow past your eye in the latter parts of the video. Orion’s belt is on the celestial equator, so the satellites are easiest to see there.

And while some people are familiar with the bulge of the central part of the Milky Way in videos like this, it’s easy to forget that the galaxy stretches all the way around the sky, and the bright stars of Orion punctuate it off to the side. That is apparent again only in the latter parts of the video, when light pollution drops.

And those red waves that look like clouds you can see sweeping across the sky? That’s airglow, gas molecules high in the atmosphere gently releasing the energy from sunlight they accumulated all day. That takes fairly dark skies to see at all, and is something you’ll never see at all from even a moderately light-polluted location.

Now, remember: All of these beauties are there in the sky all the time. You just can’t see them due to wasted light.

So, what can you do to make sure your skies are pristine? It’s not easy, but it’s not all that hard either. The International Dark Sky Association has a list of resources that can help. It mostly boils down to using light fixtures that don’t point up. Seems simple, right? The hard part is getting governments to invest in them. These features tend to save money in the long run, but do cost money initially. Still, a lot of towns and cities are moving in this direction, and there are even dark sky sanctuaries being established.

I find that hopeful. There are lots of practical reasons to do this, but in the end, what motivates me to talk about it is the beauty. The art. The way the stars touch us, move us, inspire us. They show us that there are concerns outside of our petty lives, there are vast things, ancient things, things that dwarf our human existence and yet remind us that we are a part of them and owe our existence to them.

Certainly, we need to remember that this past week. But there is never a time, never a moment, in my life where that much larger reality isn’t affecting my own much smaller one. I think it makes my life better. I hope it does yours, too.