by Chetan Kunte  

The Dark Sky Project

We had an early supper on December 27 in preparation for a late night appointment at the University of Canterbury’s Mount John Observatory. With wind speeds in excess of 80kph on Mount John that night we were cautioned that the tour could potentially get cancelled. After waiting for a bit, with a clear sky and reduced intensity, the team decided it was safe to be on the summit for the next couple of hours, and soon a bus-full of hopefuls boarded.

Guided by the university’s researchers, The Dark Sky Project offers an information-rich star-gazing experience. One of the researchers offered setting my daughter’s SLR (fitted with EF-S 18-55mm lens) up to capture the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, and a dying star. I thought this wasn’t possible without a telescope!

Milky Way, as observed from University of Canterbury's Mount John Observatory, Lake Tekapo

It’s educational to note that the tour is as much about light pollution as it is about Astronomy 101. In the words of Dr Tyler Nordgren:

We’re losing the stars. Think about it this way: For 4.5 billion years, Earth has been a planet with a day and a night. Since the electric light bulb was invented, we’ve progressively lit up the night, and have gotten rid of it. Now 99 percent of the population lives under skies filled with light pollution.

To best appreciate this problem, I highly recommend reading Nautilus’s Issue 11: Light. With so much light pollution, scientists and astronomers are finding it increasingly difficult to make scientific observations and discoveries. Why does it matter? It’s because the nights have helped progress science, historically helped us discover where we are in the universe, appreciate our uniqueness, what’s surrounding us, what’s coming at us and when, realise that we’re actually seeing the past of stars as their light takes years to reach us, helped us develop an understanding of the laws of physics by observing other planets.

To realise that people are unaware of light pollution, feel happy to see bright lights from aeroplanes, actively seek white light through artificial means, generally dislike darkness and disregard our natural ability to adjust to it all is sad and mind-numbing. I hope more people realise that we are indeed losing our beautiful starry night skies, but with a little effort, much can be regained.

The University of Canterbury has convinced the residents surrounding Mount John the detrimental effects of HEV light. As a result the whole town spreads a subtle, low pale yellow light in a non-polluting manner at night, which is a wonderful demonstration of care — for the environment, for public health, for their nocturnal animals, not to mention for the researchers, all the while consuming less energy. It is incredible to think that the last time I saw such a thing was from a tiny village in India back in the 1970s.

Of the many tours in New Zealand, this is the one I liked most. It’s convincing even if one is not remotely interested in Astronomy. All one needs is an open mind.