Skip to main content

The End of Stars

Soon, some scientists say, we'll only be able to see the Milky Way in five different states.
The Milky Way. (Photo: madmiked/Flickr)

The Milky Way. (Photo: madmiked/Flickr)

My father’s telescope was hidden, locked away in a box in our garage. I never knew he had it there or that he had saved for five years to buy it finally when he was 10, almost having lost the desire for it by the time it came to be his. But when the Hale-Bopp Comet came around, he told me about the telescope and we found its plain wooden case near his toolbox.

He took out all of the pieces, holding all four at once, balancing them between his fingers until piece joined piece, and the telescope took shape. I remember his broad hands handing the telescope to me, my tiny fingers taking hold of it.

“Look carefully,” my father said when we walked into the yard, the damp darkness all around us. I stared at the starry-night sky, and my father described one of the psalms. We all have always looked up at this same sky, my father said, as I looked up, one star at a time.

My father found the comet and turned me toward it. How large God’s hands must be, I thought, in the way a child thinks about things, looking through the telescope that my father’s human hands had made. I think often of that night, and not only the fierce comet there above us, brighter than anything else, even the moon. After that night, my father taught me some of the constellations, and for years, when I lived in three different cities, he could call to tell me about the bright lights of his life and to ask about the bright lights of mine.

Not only are astronomers and nocturnal wildlife researchers unable to do their work, but light pollution also wastes energy, disrupts our sleep, and interferes with breeding and migration of wildlife.

The wonder was there, even when the city was so bright I could not see the night sky: I would go sometimes to planetariums the way people look at family albums, watch live feeds of stargazing stations around the world, or even drive somewhere where I could see the stars. “When I consider thy heavens,” the psalmist sang, “the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man that thou art mindful of him?”

IT IS A LOVELY thing: gazing at the deep, clear darkness of the night and the bright, brilliant light of all that’s in it. But like most lovely things, it’s endangered. Earlier this month, Brad Plumer wrote a piece for Vox titled “Light Pollution Is Erasing the Night Sky,” which referenced an extraordinary feature from the Arizona Republic by Megan Finnerty. “Scientists estimate that in about 10 years,” Finnerty wrote, “America will have only three dark patches of land where people will be able to clearly see the Milky Way.”

Yes, only three places in all of America where we will be able to gaze at the Milky Way in just one decade. According to Finnerty, “those areas are southeastern Oregon and western Idaho; northeastern Nevada and western Utah; and northern Arizona and southeastern Utah.” But only the Oregon-Idaho area is really safe, since the neon lights of Las Vegas and the sprawling streets of Phoenix are threatening the other two areas. Like travel and tourism around the Northern Lights, the Milky Way might well become something we go somewhere to see, not something we can see from wherever we are.

Light pollution is already creeping out of cities and into surrounding areas, and the glow of streetlights, skyscrapers, and stadiums will soon overtake the countryside. It isn’t just our sense of celestial wonder that we lose when the light overtakes the dark. Both Finnerty and Plumer document well the costs of losing our nightly darkness. Not only are astronomers and nocturnal wildlife researchers unable to do their work, but light pollution also wastes energy, disrupts our sleep, and interferes with breeding and migration of wildlife.

But both writers also survey the serious efforts underway to preserve the darkness of the night. They mention the work of the International Dark-Sky Association, a non-profit working around the globe on education and advocacy, but also designating dark-sky parks, preserves, and communities; they describe how municipalities and national parks around the country are creating lighting codes to regulate light pollution; and they explain how cities like Los Angeles are also replacing traditional streetlamps with downward-facing LEDs.

When I remember that night watching Hale-Bopp Comet with my father’s forgotten telescope, I am hopeful that we can do more than mourn the loss of the night sky. I hope that we can preserve and protect it, too, so that Finnerty’s forecast for only three viewing areas for the Milky Way needn’t come true.