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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

April 2000

Comet Hyakutake blazes across a northern sky. © Scott Nielsen

A star-studded night

The dark skies in state parks are ideal for celestial exploration.

Katherine Esposito


Comet Hyakutake blazes across a northern sky.

© Scott Nielsen

Darkening the heavens | Eye on the sky

Eric Wilcots, a UW-Madison astronomer, says he no longer wonders at the paucity of people who find it fun to tilt back and gaze at the heavens.

"I was at first, but I've ceased to be amazed," he said, laughing, on a stellar September evening at Governor Dodge State Park in Iowa County. "A lot of people at some point know a few constellations in the sky. But I was surprised at how little time people actually take to look up."

I'm ashamed to say, I was once among those multitudes. But I made amends that September evening as I joined about 20 other night owls at the park for a stargazing session with Wilcots and two graduate students, D.J. Pisano and Birgit Otte. The "others" included a ladies' church group and several families with kids, who planned to crash at their campsite later.

Before the night was over, I'd recalled the legend of a desirable maiden named Andromeda, glimpsed my first binary star, and finally understood why astronomers say that our view of space is really ancient history. I'd also appreciated the limits of exploring the universe through an ordinary telescope.

Darkening the heavens

Stargazers today face a problem that barely existed only a couple of generations ago. Light pollution has spread so much in the last few decades that it compromises nearly everyone's view of the stars. For many urban Americans, the stars no longer really come out at all.

Most light pollution is unnecessary. It is not an inevitable result of having well-lit streets and cities. As much as three-fourths of the murky glow you see in the sky at night is wasted light beamed directly skyward from poorly designed or improperly installed light fixtures. A standard security light, for instance, may send roughly half its rays above horizontal – directly into the sky – rather than down toward the ground where the light does any good. The upward half is pure waste.

If the fixture is replaced with a well-designed, "full-cutoff shielded" fixture of various types now available – one that directs all the light down where it's supposed to go – the bulb wattage can be cut by half for a big savings of electricity and money. The quality of illumination is actually improved as glare is reduced from the near-horizontal beams that dazzle your eyes directly from a bulb. And we regain some of the lost starry heavens.

America is estimated to waste about $1-2 billion per year in electricity bills needlessly spilling light into the sky, according to a study by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit group founded to educate the public and industry about light pollution. More on light pollution is available from the IDA website, or write them at 3225 N. First Ave., Tucson, AZ 85719 U.S.A. – Fred Schaaf, Sky & Telescope magazine

The University of Wisconsin's outreach programs decided a few years ago to cajole nonscientists like me to discover astronomy by marrying the expertise of real-life astronomers with a vital ingredient: dark skies. A perfect place was a state park – farther from artificial lights and full of people seeking natural outdoor experiences. So for the last four summers, the UW has held numerous sessions dubbed "Universe in the Park" at state parks, including Governor Dodge. That's where I caught up with Wilcots and his two students.

The three scientists brought the essentials of their craft: two telescopes, slides, and a hundred cans (it seemed) of bug spray. "The spray is the most important thing," Otte declared. "At home [Germany] I don't have a problem with them. American mosquitoes are different."

Even more important than bug spray, perhaps, especially on a night with no bugs, was rehearsing their stories. Their plan was to show slides of stars and then douse the lights and help us amateurs view the sky through the scopes.

But stars carry more than just a name and a position in the sky. Creative minds centuries ago assigned to them simple tales rivaling any of the Brothers Grimm. In many cases, it's those legends that draw people in to take a heavenly glance and let their imaginations wander.

Take the constellation Andromeda, for instance.

The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the nighttime glories to be seen during 'The Universe in the Park' programs at Wisconsin's State Parks. © NASA/JPL/Hubble Collection
The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the nighttime glories to be seen during 'The Universe in the Park' programs at Wisconsin's State Parks.

© NASA/JPL/Hubble Collection

According to Greek legend, Andromeda was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, also constellations. Cassiopeia boasted that Andromeda was more lovely than the Sea Nymphs, and in retaliation the nymphs, who were goddesses, complained to Neptune, the Sea God. Neptune sent a whale who promptly began to devour Cepheus's people. The people complained, and the only solution was to sacrifice Andromeda. After Andromeda was chained to a rock, Perseus killed the whale and saved her, and they flew off in harmony on his winged horse, Pegasus. And somehow they all got thrown up in the sky as stars and constellations.

Now, if that doesn't hook people, nothing will. "The Greeks had fairly active imaginations, I think," said Wilcots.

Eye on the sky

Universe in the Parks programs are booked in May for the June through October season. The schedule will be posted at three websites:

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine
Coming Events at Wisconsin State Parks, Forests and Trails
Universe in the Park

State park naturalists will also post stargazing programs on kiosks and in offices where upcoming events are listed. You can also get a written copy of the season schedule for Universe in the Park after May 15th by writing to Universe in the Parks Schedule, DNR Bureau of Parks and Recreation, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707, or call (608) 266-2186.

Can't wait for Universe in the Parks to begin? Here's a list of planetariums and observatories in Wisconsin listed by Sky & Telescope magazine.

Buckstaff Planetarium: UW-Oshkosh, 800 Algoma Blvd., Oshkosh, WI 54901; (414) 424-4433. Seats 53.

Charles Z. Horwitz Planetarium: David A. Deremer, School District of Waukesha, 222 Maple Ave., Waukesha, WI 53186; (414) 521-8841. Seats 38.

L. E. Phillips Planetarium: Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, UW-Eau Claire, WI 54702; (715) 836-5731. Seats 50.

Madison Metropolitan School District Planetarium: 201 S. Gammon Road, Madison, WI 53717, (608) 829-4053.

UW-La Crosse Planetarium: Physics Dept., Cowley Hall, La Crosse, WI 54601; (608) 785-8669, fax: (608) 785-8332. Seats 60.

UW-River Falls Planetarium: Kausar Yasmin, Dept. of Physics, River Falls, WI 54022; 715-425-3196, fax: (715) 425-0652. Seats 50.

UW-Stevens Point Planetarium: Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, Stevens Point, WI 54481; (715) 346-2208. Seats 70.

Barlow Planetarium: UW-Fox Valley Center, 1478 Midway Rd., Menasha, WI 54952; (414) 832-2848. Seats 100.

Hobbs Observatory: Beaver Creek Reserve, S-1 County Rd. K, Fall Creek, WI 54742; (715) 877-2787, fax: (715) 877-2787.

Washburn Observatory: UW-Madison, 1401 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI 53706, (608) 262-9274 (closed for repairs)

Whitewater Observatory: Old Main Hill, Dept. of Physics, UW-Whitewater, WI 53190; (414) 472-5766.

Yerkes Observatory: Public Information, 373 W. Geneva St., P.O. Box 258, Williams Bay, WI 53191; (414) 245-5555.

The crowd saw a slide of Andromeda projected onto a screen that night, but I'm not sure she was visible through the telescopes. That's the reality of stargazing; it could be the right time of year, but clouds might distract, stray light can dim the sky, the telescope could be too weak or it might not be properly aligned. Even behemoth scopes like the ten-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain they brought that night can't see everything.

That scope is a smaller cousin of the 15-inch Washburn Observatory telescope on scenic Observatory Drive at UW-Madison, which was, until 1958, the second largest in the United States. To examine the starry sea precisely nowadays, the UW astronomers rely on even longer vision and technology. They just instruct a digital computer camera at an observatory in New Mexico when to shoot the photograph they want. "You're sitting in a nice, warm, brightly lit room, happily drinking coffee, waiting for the next image to download," chuckled Wilcots.

In other words, no more fiddling in the dark. That's part of the reason these celestial junkies rejoin their forerunners every time they set up the Schmidt-Cassegrain at a state park.

The device was strong enough to show how one star, Albireo, is actually two: one blue, one reddish, and is now called a binary star. Back in 1952, when H.A. Rey, the children's author known best for a little monkey named Curious George, published a book called "The Stars," it was thought that binary stars were only one out of every five. Now it's known that they are more common, said D.J. Pisano. "There's a saying that three out of every two stars are binary stars," he said. "It's kind of a joke."

Even more amazing than the twins of Albireo was realizing just how dated that view was. Albireo may look peaceful enough, but the sight I saw that night was really old news; it took place thousands of years ago. That is how long the light from the twin stars took to reach Earth. If we were closer to them, we might discover that the stars look completely different now. Astronomers call this "looking back in time."

In 1987, a supernova exploded in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is a galaxy named after the Portuguese sailor Magellan, in the southern hemisphere about 150,000 light-years away. (A light-year is the distance light travels in a vacuum in one year, about six trillion miles.) "It went off, from our point of view, all of a sudden," said Professor Wilcots. "But that star really exploded 150,000 years ago. It took that long for the light to get to us."

Wow!

Sky drama: The phases of a total lunar eclipse. © Scott Nielsen
Sky drama: The phases of a total lunar eclipse.

© Scott Nielsen

Insights like that are the sort that prompt kids (both young and old) to develop an interest in astronomy, not so different from the reasons Pisano got started as a boy. "I remember that on the beach, my father explained the stars to me," he said. "Everything is so far, everything is so big. It was beyond my imagination. And that's what's so fascinating about it."

Having a professional astronomer explain the mysteries doesn't hurt, either.

Fortunately, stars stick around, so there's ample opportunity for the next crop of Curious Georges to get started. For a schedule of upcoming sessions, check out the websites and addresses listed in the box. Also, the books of H.A. Rey are highly recommended: "The Stars" (Houghton Mifflin, 1952, 1980) and "Find the Constellations" (Houghton Mifflin, 1954, 1976).

Katherine Esposito is a staff writer based in Madison.