Answers in the stars
DETROIT LAKES - Are we losing the night sky?
Thousands of volunteers in 110 countries are trying to help answer that question by gazing into space.
Through the international Globe at Night program, volunteers are gathering data through Saturday by filling out a simple form recording the magnitude of stars around the constellation Orion, according to Chuck Deeter, a staff member with the Headwaters Science Center in Bemidji who works with educational programs.
"It's fallen upon me to be one of the people to expand the Headwaters Science Center into astronomy," said Deeter, who attended an astronomy workshop, "Astronomy From the Ground Up," last fall in St. Louis.
Anita Merritt, also a Headwaters staff member, took the same workshop online.
Through the workshop, they became part of an online community and were contacted by Globe at Night. "We are working on it together," Deeter said.
The project, which started Feb. 25 and is in its third year, will gather information about light pollution -- unnecessary excess light at night that can cause environmental problems and that obstructs the view of the night sky. The information will be placed into a database that will be used to help support efforts to control light pollution.
Volunteers can pick up information and an observation sheet at Headwaters Science Center. The observation sheet provides charts showing eight versions of star visibility around Orion. A volunteer indicates which version best matches what he or she sees in the night sky.
The latitude and longitude must also be recorded; these figures can be determined through a GPS unit, by visiting www.map.orama.com and mapping the street address (latitude/longitude coordinates will be displayed under the map), or with a topographic map.
To view Orion, go outside an hour after sunset. Turn off any outside lights, wait at least 10 minutes to become acclimated to the darkness and then locate Orion in the sky.
For help finding the constellation, visit www.globe.gov/globeatnight/observe_finder.html. Look for three stars spaced closely in a row (Orion's belt).
Volunteers can input their information at www.globe.gov.
Deeter noted that a composite satellite photo of Earth at night shows sections that are "lit up like a Christmas tree."
"It makes it difficult for astronomers to see the night sky, both amateur and professional astronomers," he said. "Some people have never seen stars."
Even though telescopes in orbit can transmit information back to Earth, most information gathered about space is still acquired using optical telescopes on Earth, Deeter said.
Excess lighting also wastes energy, increases greenhouse gases and has environmental impacts through effects on plants and animals, Deeter said.
"It can interrupt mating behavior and nesting behavior," he said, noting that some organisms function only in a nocturnal environment. "Harm those as a species and you harm the entire ecosystem."
One way to reduce light pollution is to use street and parking lot light fixtures that focus light downward where light is needed, rather than shining in all directions. These fixtures also allow the use of lower wattage and lesson sky glow, Deeter said.
Exploring astronomy becomes more and more fascinating over time, he said.
"A sense of mystery is really engaged. There's so much out there. We're learning a lot, but we know so little about the universe we live in," Deeter said. "Earth is small and unique. This is an incredibly unique planet we live on."
Laurie Swenson writes for the Bemidji Pioneer, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper.