The Half-Astrophysicist Blog

Navigating the Dark Marble

Last week at the American Geophysical Union meeting, NASA unveiled a series of new images of the world at night. You have probably seen lots of these images on the web (I have posted some of them here from time to time) but not quite with this resolution! Here is a sample of the image of the United States.

Now that’s pretty good, but I have always wanted a nice interactive version where you could zoom in on it and pan around a bit. Well I got my wish with the Blue Marble Navigator. You can pan and zoom in on an area of interest anywhere on the world. The details you can get are amazing. You can trace out the U.S. Interstate highways system, fires from oil fields around the world, lights from the Japanese fishing fleet and the Trans-Siberian railroad. You can learn a lot but clicking around looking at lighting patterns. Here is a zoom of the Tucson area.

Tucson at NightYou can really see the boundaries of the town. I can even pick out Speedway (I live just off it) and where it dead ends into Saguaro National Park East, one of my frequent spots for astrophotography.

Some of the older pics you see of the world at night have such low resolution, they make it look like there are lights literally everywhere. With these pics, you get a better and more realistic view of where the cities and lights are. Of course, the real problem is that these city light can be seen quite a ways out (sometimes hundreds of miles).

So go ahead, click around the map, find your hometown and see how it looks.


December 11, 2012 Posted by | Dark Skies, NASA | Leave a comment

The Dark Skies Crusader Rides Again!

Today’s episode of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast once again comes from NOAO and features our Dark Skies Crusader as he helps the Swanson family participate in GLOBE at Night.

I write the Dark Skies Crusader segments and try to have a little fun with them. This is a bit of a writing philosophy blog here I guess. I put them in a style of a Saturday movie serial (except done for audio only).  It’s a bit of a lost style.  Usually you have an overly dramatic narrator setting the scene at the beginning of the episode, very clearly defined good and evil, and overly earnest hero helping a squeaky clean family (there is a bit of the Tick in the Dark Skies Crusader if you have seen that show).  The Clone Wars on the Cartoon Network has elements of this genre. The writing style intentionally evokes a simpler time.

The Crusader himself is not a traditional superhero, but a regular man who tries to fight light pollution.  The intention here was to communicate that there are simple things that everyone can do to help fight light pollution with just a little knowledge.

I throw little jokes and references in the episodes that you might not catch.  I frequently use what I refer to as the Stan Lee naming convention.  Many characters have alliterative names (think Peter Parker, Dr. Doom, Fantastic Four, Bruce Banner, etc.)  In the sea turtle episode, they were going to Euphemia Haye, a real restaurant on Longboat Key in Florida. I took a dig at Vegas and Penn and Teller at the end of the episode. In the human health episode, the teacher’s little quips at the end of class were inspired by the scientist in the lab of the television series Police Squad who always told the little boy what they would learn about next time (this always had a very ’50s vibe to it). The end of this episode had a riff on the old Superman
“Truth, justice and the American Way” motif. I can’t claim credit for the Denebola joke in the current episode…that was contributed by the student who played Stan!

In addition to today’s episode, we have done stories on the effects of light pollution on wildlife and human health.  There may be one or two more episodes coming.  My colleague, Connie Walker (director of GLOBE at Night) wants to do one on energy issues associated with night time lighting.  I already have the outline sketched out in my head but haven’t fleshed it out yet. There initial idea includes homages to the Simpsons and Happy Days in that one!

I feel like I have just written the director’s commentary for the Dark Skies Crusader DVD! I hope you are enjoying them and you might catch a few reference you might have missed the first time through.

March 7, 2011 Posted by | 365 Days of Astronomy, Dark Skies, GLOBE at Night, New Media | Leave a comment

GLOBE At Night 2011

I have blogged for several years now about the annual citizen science  light pollution measurement campaign GLOBE at Night. The 2011 campaign takes place in two parts.  The first one starts tomorrow (February 21st) and runs though Mach 6th.  After March 6th the Moon interferes too much for a couple of weeks.  The second campaign is from March 22nd to April 4th for the northern hemisphere (March 24th to April 6th for the southern hemisphere…investigate the positions and elevations of the Moon north and south of the equator in late March/early April to find out why the dates vary a couple of days).

Okay, first, the idea is simple.  Go outside after it’s dark and find the constellation Orion. Find the latitude and longitude of where you are with a GPS unit or a website like Google Earth.  The light pollution data consists of matching what you see in the sky to one of seven magnitude charts. Pick the one that matches what you see best and enter it into our database online. Multiple observations are encouraged from different points around town.  I take bike rides at night after sunset to record data.  Each night I ride a different direction and take lots of data around my area of the city AND get exercise at the same time!

For the late March campaign, you might notice Orion is getting a little low in the sky.  This year we are using Leo (northern hemisphere) and Crux (southern hemisphere) for the late march campaign.  Other than that, everything else is the same.

An added feature this year is the reporting page functions on mobile phones. If you use a web enabled cell phone, it will take the date, time and GPS coordinates from your cell phone to make your life even easier (the first time you use the site, you might get a message asking permission to access your phone’s GPS.  You will have to say yes for this feature to work).

Once you submit your data, you can go back and look at it on the map viewer.  You can zoom in all the way down to street level to see your observations.

Data from GLOBE at Night can  be used to raise awareness of light pollution issues.  The more data you have, the more research you can do.  In Tucson, GLOBE at Night data is being combined with Arizona Game and Fish Department data to look at the effects of light pollution on bats. Tucson had over 1000 points of data last year, so you need a lot of data to do this type of work, but it can be done.

We had 16,000 measurements last year, so that’s a big hill to climb.  I would love to see some cities give Tucson a run for its money in terms of number of observations.  Just a warning, we have our act together this year recruiting various community groups school classes, amateur astronomers and others to adopt streets and take multiple measurements along their designate street!  So bring it on!

February 20, 2011 Posted by | Astronomy, citizen science, Dark Skies, GLOBE at Night | 1 Comment

Dark Skies Podcast From NOAO

It’s almost time for our annual GLOBE at Night campaign which begins on February 21st, 2011 (and will be the subject of an upcoming blog post).  In preparation for the campaign, NOAO had produced another podcast for the 365 Days of Astronomy focusing on light pollution and it’s effects on human health.

Many people dismiss light pollution as only important to astronomy.  However, light pollution affects many types of animals including humans.  Excess night time lighting has been linked to sleep disorders and some types of cancer.  The American Medical Association has released a statement advocating for the reduction of excess night time lighting due to its effects on human health.

The 365 Days of Astronomy podcast features a short show each day on a different topic in astronomy.  Each day is produced by a different person or group ranging from high school students (think I even heard a couple done by middle school students), college students, and both amateur and professional astronomers from around the world..  It is free to subscribe to on iTunes and if you haven’t already subscribed, you should (and I don’t just say that because I am doing a LOT of podcasts for them this year!)  Better yet, if you like astronomy (or know someone who does) that would want to contribute, they are still looking for people to fill open dates in 2011.

February 7, 2011 Posted by | Dark Skies | Leave a comment

The Great World Wide Star Count 2010

Okay, it’s the fall version of the citizen science efforts to help quantify light pollution around the world, the Great World Wide Star Count.  Participation is simple and requires nothing more than your eyes and a little knowledge.  All you have to do is go outside after dark and observe an easy to find constellation (Cygnus if you live in the northern hemisphere, Sagitarius if you live in the southern hemisphere) and match what you see in the sky with one of their star charts. Once you have your data, you enter it along with your latitude, longitude, time and date of your observation and that’s it.  There is a handy link that will help you find your latitude and longitude based on your address or let you click on a map.  You can use a GPS unit or your phone’s GPS unit as well. Once you enter your data, you can see it on the results page.

If you go outside your house at make a measurement, that is great.  However, you can make multiple measurements at different locations.  If you go out to dinner or a movie, take a minute to look up.  Don’t worry if someone else has already taken a measurement at the same spot…multiple measurements are useful!

I have blogged on light pollution and its effects many times in the past.  Light pollution is an big old energy waster since light going to space doesn’t do much good for those of us on the ground.  People who live near the oceans are familiar with the effects of light pollution on sea turtles. Here in Tucson there is a research project underway to study the effects of light pollution on bats and there are numerous studies underway investigating light pollution’s effects on human health as well.

Now as I have mentioned before, the solution is not to turn out all the lights but to make sure we have well designed lighting.  Well designed lighting puts light only where it is needed and when it is needed and only the minimum amount needed (too much light can increase glare and can create harsh shadows which reduces visibility).  Groups such as the International Dark Sky Association have guides on well designed nighttime lighting.

Light pollution is one of those problems that can be solved with a little citizen involvement to foster awareness on the part of government and businesses when they replace their lights.  The benefits include reduced energy consumption, a more natural nighttime environment for wildlife, and increased human health and safety.  The first step it to gather data and build awareness which is a major goal of the Great Woldwide Star Count.



October 28, 2010 Posted by | citizen science, Dark Skies, Environment | Leave a comment

Dark Skies Crusader: Episode I

I thought this would air in a couple of days but it showed up in my podcast feed today.  Today’s episode of the 365 Days of Astronomy features the premiere of the Dark Skies Crusader.  The DSC rides around on his environmentally friendly bike helping citizens beat back the scourge of light pollution.

This episode tells you about Earth Hour, Dark Skies Week, and the International Night in Defense of Starlight.  I will do a post on each of these events separately as they come up.  In the meantime, enjoy the premiere episode and eagerly anticipate the DSC’s next exciting adventure.

March 22, 2010 Posted by | Dark Skies | Leave a comment

GLOBE at Night on KOLD 13

KOLD 13, the local CBS affiliate, did a segement on GLOBE at Night which aired today.  You can watch the segment here (sorry, their embedding does not play nice with WordPress).

Nice piece…now get out there and observe!

March 4, 2010 Posted by | citizen science, Dark Skies | Leave a comment

GLOBE at Night 2010

It’s that time of year again…time for our annual campaign to measure the levels of light pollution in our night skies.  This year’s GLOBE at Night campaign runs from March 3rd to the 16th.  It is very easy to participate and contribute to our world wide map of light pollution.

All you have to do is go outside after it gets dark and find the constellation of Orion.  Look closely at what you see in the sky and compare it to the magnitude charts.  Here is what they look like.

You simply look at the sky and compare it to the charts.  Pick the one that looks closest to what you see in the sky and you have your data point.  You might notice that magnitude 7 has a lot of stars and magnitude 1 has very few.  In astronomy, higher numbers mean dimmer stars (it’s a long story).

You will also need to know your latitude and longitude.  If you have a GPS system, great (many cell phone GPS systems will tell you your latitude and longitude).  If not, no big deal…all you need is your address and you can find your latitude and longitude using sites such as iTouchmap.  You can then use the form to report your measurements online.  You can then use the mapviewer to see your data and data from around the world.

It’s pretty easy.  We are looking for lots of data.  Last year, there were over 15,000 reports from around the world and we would love to top that this year.  You can make more than one observation.  You can make them from home, the grocery store, a park, the movie theater, pretty much anywhere you go at night and it just takes a couple of minutes.  I try to go for several bike rides during GLOBE at Night. I have a Garmin Forerunner GPS on my wrist and record all my data using the voice recorder on my iPod.  I go out several nights and bike a different direction each time, getting a dozen or so measurements each night.  I live near the edge of Tucson, so I get very different results if I bike west (into Tucson) versus east (toward Saguaro National Park).  That is exactly what we would like.  Lots of data in different cities…from the densely populated and brightly lit downtown to the suburbs as they give way to the countryside.

So why should you care?  Well, we are losing out night skies.  Many people have never seen a truly dark sky or if they have, it is a childhood memory.  Light pollution is wasted energy and hence money.  Light pollution has many negative effects on wildlife as well.

Still not enough for you?  How about your own health?  Last summer, the American Medical Association passed resolution 516, “Advocating and Support for Light Pollution Control Efforts and Glare Reduction for Both Public Safety and Energy Savings” identifying light pollution as a human health concern.  You can read the entire resolution here.  In part it says

“Whereas, Light trespass has been implicated in disruption of the human and animal circadian rhythm, and strongly suspected as an etiology of suppressed melatonin production, depressed immune systems, and increase in cancer rates such as breast cancers 16,17,18,19,20,21,22; and

Whereas, Light trespass disrupts nocturnal animal activity and results in diminished various animal populations’ survival and health 23; therefore be it of energy efficient designs to reduce waste of energy and production of greenhouse gasses that result from this wasted energy use (New HOD Policy); and be it further

RESOLVED, That our AMA support light pollution reduction efforts and glare reduction efforts at both the national and state levels (New HOD Policy); and be it further

RESOLVED, That our AMA support efforts to ensure all future streetlights be of a fully shielded design or similar non-glare design to improve the safety of our roadways for all, but especially vision impaired and older drivers. (New HOD Policy)”

Now of course the solution is not to turn off all lights…that would be silly.  Lights are needed at night for safety and security.  The solution is well designed lighting the directs light where you need it, when you need it, and in the correct amount.  Too much light can cause glare and make it more difficult to see which can be just as dangerous as not enough light.

So come on out and help us get our data and full up that map!

March 2, 2010 Posted by | citizen science, Dark Skies, Environment | Leave a comment

Globe at Night Podcast

Almost forgot…just saw iTunes downloaded today’s 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast and I am on today’s episode about the upcoming Globe at Night campaign.  I am sure I will blog more about that as it gets closer.  Today, listen to the podcast and subscribe (for free) i you haven’t already!

This year’s Globe at Night runs March 3rd-16th…so get ready to observe!

February 3, 2010 Posted by | citizen science, Dark Skies | Leave a comment

A Night @Kitt Peak

I just got back from out Project Astro workshop night at Kitt Peak.  Spend most of the evening showing teachers objects through the Galileoscope including Jupiter, Mizar, M4, M7, M8, M13 and M31.  Not a bad collection for a little scope.

I did manage a couple of night shots.  Couldn’t resist getting the Milky Way over one of the domes on Kitt Peak.IMG_1686I also took a shot toward Tucson of the lights.  Remember Tucson has good lighting ordinances so note the lack of upward directed lighting,  You still get some light…hey, there are a lot of people down there!

IMG_1682Good night…another day of the workshop tomorrow!

September 19, 2009 Posted by | Astronomy, Astrophotography, Dark Skies, International Year of Astronomy, Observing | Leave a comment