Light Pollution and Amateur Astronomy

This picture of the Sun was taken on September 26, 2014 from the Edison Environmental Center.

This picture of the Sun was taken on September 26, 2014 from the Edison Environmental Center.

By Jim Haklar

One of my hobbies is astronomy, and for me there is nothing more relaxing than looking up at a sky full of stars. However, light pollution has made it increasingly difficult for people to enjoy the wonders of the night sky. Light pollution represents energy that’s being wasted. Think of an older style “bulb” type streetlamp (where the bulb hangs upside-down from a pole). A portion of the light coming from the bulb lights the street below, but some of the light travels upward and contributes to the nighttime glow. While there are communities that require the use of special “directed” lighting, we have a long way to go before we’ll be able to see the Milky Way from lower Manhattan.

Amateur astronomers have several options for dealing with light pollution. They can use special filters that block the wavelengths of light emitted by nighttime lighting. However, those filters also block some of the light emitted by stars or galaxies and that can be a problem when viewing or taking photos of these objects.

Another option is to drive to a location where the light pollution is minimal. For someone living in the New York City area, this may mean driving for several hours. You also have to consider whether the location you’re observing from is safe. There have been times when I’ve been startled by a nocturnal animal who wandered too close to my equipment. While I don’t mind a deer joining me for an evening of observing, I definitely would have problems spending my quality time with a skunk!

One other alternative is solar astronomy. By using a properly filtered telescope to look at the Sun during the day, light pollution is never an issue. And the Sun’s surface changes from day to day. I can also get to bed at a reasonable hour (and avoid my smelly nighttime companions).

In spite of the light pollution I still believe that astronomy is a worthwhile hobby. No matter where you live, be it the city, suburbs or a rural area, there will always be something to see in the sky. Just look up.

About the Author: Jim is an environmental engineer at EPA’s Edison, New Jersey Environmental Center. In his nearly 30 years with the Agency he has worked in a variety of programs including Superfund, Water Management, Public Affairs, and Toxic Substances. He has been an amateur astronomer since he was a teenager, and can often be found after work in the back of the Edison facility with his telescope.

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