This is Your Chance: Orion, Leo, the Milky Way Need Your Help

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In the age-old battle of iPad vs. the nighttime sky, the nighttime sky is losing. OK, so maybe it’s not an age-old battle. The seemingly ubiquitous iPad after all, has only been around for barely two years (it debuted in April of 2010). However, astronomers are worried that the current generation (and we assume future generations, too) of young people will grow up unable to identify basic constellations in the nighttime sky.  To blame? iPads, texting, XBox 360 and PlayStation, 500 cable channels, the ever-busier family all play a part. Could there be an inversely proportional ratio that tracks childhood obesity and time spent outside stargazing?

We shouldn’t be surprised. Many teens can’t identify a newspaper (it’s true, if you believe this article), and although this study is now six years old, it showed how two-thirds of young Americans aged 18-24 couldn’t find Iraq on a map. With that in mind, not being able to find the Milky Way seems to be par for the course.

You'll never find the world's best telescopes in New York City. Light pollution would render them ineffective and a tremendous waste of money. Click for larger image. Image: Wikipedia

But it’s not just video games, smart phones and iPads that are obscuring the nighttime sky — there’s something else to blame, as well: light pollution. Light pollution is a growing problem for not only young Americans but for people around the world. Whether it’s because more people have left (and are leaving) rural regions for the suburbs and cities, or whether suburbanites find little reason to look up into the sky, more and more people are unable to experience a truly dark sky. Without a dark sky, stargazing becomes difficult for the devoted astronomer but downright unappealing (and perhaps impossible) for the junior hobbyist. This is why you won’t find the world’s most advanced telescopes in the cities — telescopes need to be far removed from population centers so as to eliminate as much extraneous light as possible from the view skyward. This is also why GLOBE at Night was founded.

Without light pollution, the Milky Way is easy to find in a dark sky. Photo: astropix

Globe at Night wants to bring attention to light pollution and the fact that so many young people around the world are growing up without a basic knowledge or even an interest in the constellations. From their website: “The GLOBE at Night program is an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness and submit their observations to a website from a computer or smart phone. Light pollution threatens not only our ‘right to starlight,’ but can affect energy consumption, wildlife and health. The GLOBE at Night campaign has run for two weeks each winter/spring for the last six years. People in 115 countries have contributed 66,000 measurements, making GLOBE at Night one of the most successful light pollution awareness campaigns.”

(The world’s five most powerful telescopes.)

The McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis, Texas takes advantage of its location far removed from sources of light pollution. Click for larger image. Image: Wikipedia

The 2012 GLOBE at Night campaign begins this Saturday, January 21 and concludes in April. Data collected from international GLOBE at Night participants will be used so that dark-sky advocates can push for changes in lighting ordinances. For every new sporting facility (from Little League to Super Dome), for every new airport expansion or shopping mall, for every new parking complex or suburban neighborhood there is more light pollution and fewer people able to experience a truly dark sky. Additionally, light pollution effects the natural rhythms of wildlife and some believe it can even effect our own biological clock.

GLOBE at Night and organizations such as the International Dark-Sky Association don’t want to turn all your lights off, or make your favorite sporting facility daytime-only. However, by making the public aware of the growing issues of light pollution as well as supporting efficient, energy- and cost-saving lighting, their hope is to make changes to lighting appealing and desired by populations around the world.

What can you do? Visit GLOBE at Night and fill out their webapp. You’ll need to know your latitude and longitude (to do that, click here). Then you’ll need to find the constellation Orion, Leo or Crux at least one hour after dark. Match your observations to one of GLOBE at Night’s magnitude charts and report your findings. You’re done! You can also check the findings from observers around the globe.

But all is not dark, even if you can’t bare to part with your beloved iPad. There are many apps like this one that let you not only find your own latitude and longitude, but help you find constellations while stargazing outside. So fill out GLOBE at Night’s webapp, grab your iPad, download the stargazing app of your choice,  grab your favorite deck chair and a blanket, head outside and look up. Easy! (Or should I say, it’s easy if you live in the country. It’s going to requite a hour or two drive out to the country if you live in or near a city.)

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