Remembering The Stars

When I was ten, I would look up at the night sky from my home in the outskirts of Jackson, Mississippi, and see a sky full of stars. Their magic captivated me – I would often arise in the middle of the night and sneak out with my telescope, for the chance to spend a few extra minutes under the stars. Through the years, those stars never lost their magic. Even without a telescope, I spent many hours watching the grand procession of the constellations and planets across the sky as the seasons changed. As the years went by, other interests and responsibilities took time away from stargazing. Then, about fifteen years ago, my wife gave me a telescope for Christmas, and this was followed soon afterward by a move to a suburb of Jackson, a small town with the dark skies I remembered from my youth. My passion for astronomy was rekindled. But over the next few years, I began to take notice of changes in the skies. Not the appearance of new stars, but the gradual disappearance of old ones. The town in which I lived was growing rapidly, and as it grew, I noticed that the sky was becoming brighter. There was a glow along the horizons, low and fairly dim at first, but soon spreading over a third of the sky. Where once I could see all seven stars of the Little Dipper, now I could rarely see more than three or four. What had happened? It was a phenomenon known as light pollution. As stores and restaurants were built along the highway about one-half mile to my west, stray light from unshielded or poorly shielded fixtures in parking lots, on storefronts, and along the road combined to create a glow that scattered across the sky, blotting out the fainter stars. Familiar figures in the night sky, such as the Big Dipper and Orion, faded and became difficult to recognize as the fainter stars in the constellation could no longer be seen. The backyard that ten years earlier was a gateway to the universe was now captive to lights from two grocery stores, two drugstores, three fast-food restaurants, two banks, and a service station. This is a common occurrence in many parts of the United States today. As we push suburbia further into the countryside, the lights of the many conveniences we need or want follow