Dark Skies -Bright Stars, PLEASE!

By: John Hlynialuk

Amateur stargazers, cottagers and nocturnal animals are really lucky to be living in Bruce and Grey counties. Stargazers have dark skies and bright stars to observe. Cottagers (away from overly-lit urban areas) have dark skies and a beautiful swath of summer Milky Way overhead when the family is out cooking weenies over a campfire. Nocturnal animals that live near or in the Bruce Peninsula Biosphere Reserve have nighttime darkness to which they have adapted over the millennia -no pesky streetlights making them well-lit targets for predators.

The common theme here is, of course, dark skies and a natural environment. Many places like the Bruce Peninsula Fathom Five National Park and the Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre are still mostly pristine environments and from a stargazing perspective, protected from unnecessary nighttime lighting, be it incandescent, florescent, or the most recent abomination, LEDs.

Keeping a dark nighttime environment is crucial for human health. Just google “Dark skies human health” for dozens of medical studies that support this contention. Fortunately, in the Bruce/Grey area of Ontario, nighttime over-illumination is only a problem in a few localities. Furthermore, efforts to preserve the dark nighttime environment locally have borne fruit. There are 17 Dark Sky Preserves in Canada, and four of them are within a 160 km radius of Wiarton. The four include Bruce Peninsula National Park near Tobermory, the Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre near Wiarton, Gordon’s Park on Manitoulin Island, and Torrence Barrens near Gravenhurst. Yes, locally we are optimistic about controlling light pollution, but the planet-wide scene is decidedly much the opposite.

Not to mince words, overall, we are losing the battle to control nighttime illumination. You just have to look at an image of the Earth at night from space to see how bright it is at night. Satellite cameras detect the totally wasted light sent upwards. Much light reflects back down from dust particles and water vapour and brightens the sky generally. The effect is visible even in rural areas as the visibility of faint objects is reduced. Even from 100’s of kilometres away, the light domes over our cities cast an orange glow into the sky. Anywhere near or within a large city, the glare from overhead lights is extreme, allowing only light from the Moon and bright planets to get through. Fainter objects are totally invisible.

[Click on image below to download a copy]

F3.large
Image from study published in Science Advance magazine.


A study in 2016 authored by Fabio Falchi of the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Italy and Chris Elvidge of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (along with other international scientists) has found that in the USA, for ex., 80% of the population cannot see the Milky Way from where they live. The percentage is the same in urban Canadian areas like those along the Windsor to Montreal corridor. The darkest skies on our planet are of course, in areas like the Canada northland and in countries like Madagascar, the Central African Republic and Greenland, where everyone can see the Milky Way by just stepping outside.
[The original paper is available here:
http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/2/6/e1600377 ]

I am lucky to be able to see the Milky Way from my back yard because my house blocks the city lights to the north but there are sickly yellow-orange glows along parts of the southern and eastern horizon. Of course, like other large towns and cities, no Milky Way is visible from downtown Owen Sound. The situation locally has gotten worse in the last few years because the city recently replaced the majority of their streetlights with LEDs. These are certainly more economical and do have proper shielding to prevent upward light spill, but the overall level of lighting has increased approximately 30%, so the total light reflected from the ground upwards (especially in winter) has increased by a large fraction. Many people have commented to me that they find the lights at night overly bright. I agree and have the measurements to prove it.

On Saturday afternoon, May 27, there is an opportunity to visit a Dark Sky Preserve during the Open House at the Bluewater Outdoor Education Centre. The Bluewater Education Foundation and Ducks Unlimited Canada are co-sponsoring this event and it is open to everyone. You are welcome to come to the Outdoor Ed Centre (maps on the BAS website given below) and enjoy the wagon rides, birding, hikes, and fun kid activities like critter-dippin’ and face painting. Events start at 1 pm and will include solar observing with (safely-filtered) telescopes from the Fox Observatory. Everyone is welcome and after the Sun goes down, the observatory will be open for some dark sky viewing. Come and see what a Dark Sky Preserve is all about.

Check www.bluewaterastronomy.com for more information.

UFO's -NOT!

UFO’s -a personal experience
by John H.

Considering that I have been a stargazer most of my adult life, you might think that I have seen a lot of strange things in the sky. The answer to the question: “Seen any UFO’s?” is pretty simple: “No.” This lack of UFO sightings on my part is perhaps remarkable. After all I am out two or three times a week (weather permitting) looking at the sky with a variety of telescopes and cameras. I have taken close to 5 000 pictures on film, and more than three times that number of digital images. This is by no means unusual for a die-hard stargazer like myself and I number myself among a million or more amateur astronomers around the world. The USA has about half of those and Canada probably has close to 50 000 or so.

There are rarely reports of unusual objects (UFOs) from this large group of sky-savvy folks. The simple reason is that people who know the sky well can identify 99.99% of what they see as natural objects. These include ordinary aircraft, bright glints of sunlight from satellites or moving points of light such as the International Space Station, meteors of various brightnesses, some exploding at the end, bright planets like Venus (the single object most often mistaken for a “flying saucer") and even bright stars refracting the colours of the rainbow when their light passes through the thick air near the horizon. I have seen Sirius, for example, flashing colours across the entire spectral range from red to violet.

There is, however, one incident that had me stumped, for a little while anyway. If I had not used
all of my senses, I would be puzzled to this day. But it took only a simple observation to get an answer for the UFO that I saw. (it is now an IFO on my list, -an Identified Flying Object).

It happened in May 1980, in Thompson, Manitoba chaperoning a group of Bruce County students who had won the right to compete in the Canada-Wide Science Fair. I had a great experience with that wonderful group of young people and several came back home with Canada-Wide awards. We were housed for several nights in a college residence and at night, (after my charges were safely tucked away in their rooms...) I would go out for an hour or two of stargazing and photography. The residence parking area (within sight of our rooms) was an ideal spot to view the northern sky and I came home with some good photos of aurora and some interesting planet groupings in the western sky. I was particularly impressed with how low Polaris was compared to its 45° elevation back home.

IMG_152399_611K
Venus appeared in the sky of Thompson Manitoba in May, 1980 and no one mistook it for a UFO. Photo by John H.

My UFO experience started rather simply with a moving point of light that was just like many meteors I had seen before. Then another one appeared from the same direction and split into two at the end of its path. “Wow”, I said, “a fragmenting meteor!” I went back to gazing at the stars and it happened again, but after the trail split, the two separate trails started criss-crossing each other! Meteors breaking up do not do this, so was this a UFO mother ship and scouts?. More trails appeared, even three together and some performed the same crossing pattern as before. I was stumped, but then I started actually hearing the meteors! -a faint, swish, swish sound in the quiet of the night. It sounded just like the beat of wings of low-flying birds.

In fact, these UFO’s
were birds. The faint light was reflection from feathers covered with chemicals that make them water resistant and which also fluoresce in the UV light, spilling upward from the streetlights below. The flight paths of birds often cross from our perspective on the ground.

If I had only seen and not heard the event, it would have gone down in my book as a genuine UFO.

UFO sighting statistics always have a small percentage of UFO sightings that remain “unexplained”. My contention is that if more details of the sighting were available or if an experienced sky-watcher was observing, most, even all, sightings could be explained. I know this will not satisfy those folks out there who want there to be extra-terrestrials visiting us, but my own experience and that of thousands of amateur astronomers familiar with the sky indicates otherwise.