Every year since 2003, during the new moon in April, a week is designated and dedicated to celebrate something everyone on earth shares, the Night Sky. Known as Dark Sky Week, it’s a time to turn out the lights and look up at the wonders of night. The International Dark Sky Association invites everyone to “Discover the Night” this 2021 Dark Sky Week.
It is a time to celebrate the importance of the Night Sky and just how essential & beautiful it is. It’s not just about pretty pictures, it’s more importantly about raising awareness of light pollution and how essential it is to protect our views of the night for generations to come. Having a view of a truly dark sky is becoming so rare around the world, it’s alarming, and only continues to push me to share my views with those that may never see it like I am so fortunate to.
As light pollution continues to spread every year at an uncontrolled rate, it is essential that we recognize the importance of the night sky and protect the ability to see it. As an astro photographer I have a passion for the night sky and feel it is important to continue to promote and educate around dark sky awareness through my work.
It’s important to note that the night sky is not essential just for viewing purposes, darkness plays a critical role in ecosystems around the world. Dark Sky is an important and essential part of life that must be protected.
To celebrate International Dark Sky Week and to help raise awareness, I have again decided to feature some of my favourite Cosmic Wonders of the Night Sky.
Cosmic Wonder of the Night Sky : Aurora
This is my personal favourite Wonder of the Night Sky. The Northern Lights.
The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in the North and the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) in the south are some of the most enchanting displays of light caused in nature. Created by the reaction between the sun’s energy being released and colliding with Earth’s magnetic field. The charged particles are pulled toward the north and south poles and emit light through the reactions. The colour of the display depends on the reaction between different elements, causing a highly unpredictable display of light in shades of green, purple, blue and red.
Aurora is known to be hard to predict and almost impossible to plan in advance for. Most of it comes down to pure luck. The experience of looking up while the sky fills full of moving and changing light is absolutely breathtaking. A sensation takes over of pure wonder, excitement and joy as the Aurora captivates with its cosmic beauty. The ability to see the Aurora depends on the strength of the show, having fairly good views of the northern horizon, and of course being located near or under the Aurora oval. As light pollution increases the views of the night decrease. Since there are already very limited areas in the world that the Aurora is visible, it makes protecting the night sky in these areas essential to keep these views.
Aurora is the product of intricate reactions in nature that produce out of this world beauty in the night sky. Our ability to see it is determined mostly by geographic location and solar activity, however having access to dark sky is essential.
Cosmic Wonder of the Night Sky : The Milky Way
The next fascinating Wonder of the Night Sky is the Milky Way.
The Milky Way is our galaxy, and a view from a dark location can be mesmerizing. It is a dense region of stars and galactic gases that produce a distinct and visible band of stars in the night sky. Always visible to some degree. There are specific areas of the Milky Way, such as the core, that are known to be the most photogenic but is not visible all year long, but some part of the Milky Way will always be visible. In Saskatchewan, the milky way core begins to rise above the southern horizon in March just before dawn. Gradually rising earlier in the night until summer when it falls below the horizon again.
Unlike the Aurora, the Milky Way is visible from anywhere on earth, that is in fact, dark enough. A typical subject for astro photography, the Milky Way is interesting to capture. Depending on where on earth you are, the view of the Milky Way will change, but it will always be there in some capacity. No matter what time of year, when you are far away from light pollution and look up to the stars, there will always be a region that appears more dense than the rest. That is the Milky Way. That is our galaxy and our view. As you can imagine, the view only gets better the clearer and darker the night is as the blanket of stars fills the sky.
For the best viewing you want to be in the darkest area you can, with no moonlight or light pollution to block your view. Due to the constant increase of light pollution, these locations are becoming harder to find. In rural and remote areas the views are a lot better than anywhere near an urban centre. This is why in high density urban areas, there may only be a few visible stars. Not that the Milky Way isn’t there, it’s the light pollution blocking the view of the night sky that is the problem. This makes light pollution awareness and dark sky preservation important for stargazing all around the world.
Cosmic Wonder of the Night Sky : The Moon
It may seem to obvious but another true Wonder of the Night Sky is the Moon.
The big bright beautiful Moon. Although it is not as affected by light pollution as the view of the Milky Way or the Aurora because it is the brightest object in our night sky and is visible throughout its phases anywhere on earth due to the sun. On a consistent basis we can all see the moon rise and set, and light the way in the night on a regular and consistent basis. Even though the ability to see the moon isn’t under threat like other aspects of the night, it is still an important wonder of the Night Sky. The moon was the world’s first step into space, and will always be the most recognizable and consistent object in the night.
The Moon appears in phases because of the shadow of the earth projected by the sun. The phases do change slightly each night as it moves through its regular rotation, perfectly predictable, and always consistent. The brightness of the moon has an impact on stargazing and night photography for various reasons. When the moon is near full it can be so bright that most of the starlight is faded by its intensity and when the moon is small or not visible at night, it can assist in creating a wonderful view of the cosmos. For photographers sake the moon can provide enough light to enhance a foreground or create depth in the shadows. The ability to plan for the moon phases and times is useful for viewing and capturing the beauty of the night.
Cosmic Wonders of the Night Sky : Constellations, Planets and Deep Space
This takes me to the final collection of the Wonders of the Night Sky made up of the various Constellations, Planets & Deep Space objects viewable from earth. Space is infinitely huge, with so much that remains unknown and more discovered all the time, space is fascinating.
The constellations of stars, other planets in our solar system and the deep and endless unknowns of space create an interesting mix to be studied and viewed. The views at night through a telescope, camera or by the naked eye can illicit feelings of imagination, curiosity and wonder. The identifiable and unknown all mixed into a cosmic backdrop to be enjoyed, admired and pondered.
The clarity of space in general or the prominence of planets or constellations in our night is highly determined by the ability to have access to dark sky with little to no light pollution to obstruct the view. Yes there are instruments used to look beyond the light pollution but for the average person, finding a truly dark sky can be more than enough to view the cosmic wonders of night.
The light seen from space is constantly being studied and analyzed as new things are discovered and understood. Just last year, Comet Neowise was discovered early in the year, and dazzled the sky throughout July. As humanity continues to reach out and further studies Mars, society gets closer to branching out into space. This is constantly evolving field of study and makes the protection of the night sky essential for continued research and scientific discovery based on earth.
Not only is protecting our night sky important for the continued scientific advancements of Astronomers, it is also particularly important for society as a whole. The ability to stargaze and look up into a dark clear sky should not be a privilege to the few, instead it should be a priority for most as we are at threat of increased light pollution and decreased access to true dark undeveloped areas of the world. As the threat of light pollution is more understood, we continue to see huge steps toward Dark Sky Preservation and an increasing interest in the night sky and all the cosmic wonders it holds.
Its International Dark Sky Week from April 5 – 12, 2021. Take this time to #DiscoverTheNight and celebrate #IDSW2021 by admiring the beauty of the night, discovering a new view and think of ways you can help reduce light pollution.
To learn more about night sky protection and links to light pollution maps, you can find it here.
Keep our skies dark and together we can keep Discovering the Cosmic Wonders of the Night!