Disappearing Dark Skies

Disappearing Stars

By Alex Turner

“… Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map …” 
-- Vincent van Gogh, 1889


The light pollution problem
The Milky Way. Credit: The Kavli FoundationWhat comes to mind when you think about America’s national parks? Rivers, mountains, geysers –  the special geological features that make each park unique. Oftentimes we are focused on preserving the environment we can see during the daylight, but we tend to take the inky night-time skies for granted. Some of our country’s darkest skies exist over the national parks, revealing a wondrous view of the Universe.

But, as our electricity-run world turns on more lights, it sacrifices more stars. About 2,500 stars should be visible to the naked eye on a clear night, but most people in U.S. cities can count the stars they can see on their two hands. One hundred years ago our home galaxy, the Milky Way, was visible from nearly anywhere in the world. Now, nearly 80 percent of North Americans cannot catch even a glimpse of it.


Junior Ranger Jasper and his father, visiting from Missouri, examine a New Horizons model and learn about the spacecraft’s trip to Pluto.The light pollution problem prompted the National Park Service to form a Night Sky Program in 2009, 400 years after Galileo turned his telescope to the stars. The program allows park rangers and volunteer night-sky specialists to teach visitors about preservation of our starry sky and how to gaze at it with and without the help of telescopes.

Ball’s Dark Sky Ranger
In July 2016, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado celebrated the National Park Service’s centennial and hosted a Night Sky Festival for visitors to enjoy day-time and night-time astronomy activities. Mike Hotka – a Ball Aerospace systems engineer, amateur astronomer and NPS Dark Sky Ranger, led solar telescope viewing and shared ways to protect our dark skies. Hotka values the education he passes on to the Junior Rangers and their parents alike.

Visitors count planet transits as Ball Outreach Manager Denise Henry simulates the Kepler telescope’s method of discovering exoplanets.“As I always mention in my presentations, ‘Education is the key to unlock doors of opportunity,’” Hotka said. In addition to learning about the night sky, visitors of all ages had fun viewing 3D-images of Pluto and learning about Ball’s work on NASA’s New Horizons and Kepler/K2 missions. Ball Outreach Manager Denise Henry shared the discoveries of these programs with families during the day and gave an evening presentation on New Horizons. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) outreach such as this brings awareness to night sky preservation while fostering student interest in STEM careers.

Learn more about the Junior Ranger Night Explorer program here.

Get more information about the National Park Service’s 100th birthday activities here

Learn more about preserving your local night sky here. 

Ball's Dark Sky Ranger

Watch to learn how a Ball engineer shares ways to protect our skies from light pollution so we can see the stars.