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Dark Skies Smiling at Me

Week of September 20, 1999

Where I live near Washington, DC, it's clear roughly half the time. The problem is, even though it's clear, it doesn't get dark. There are too many lights around. That's why I was so excited to take a weekend trip down to rural Virginia just yesterday.

I visited an old campsite where I used to go to a summer camp. The owners of the campground turned it into a resort, and they have a reunion once a year for friends and old campers, after summer rush winds down. The site is probably about 100 kilometers from the nearest big city, and so the skies there are very dark. About 10 other families were there, and so we had plenty of folks to go observing. My brother-in-law brought his 15 centimeter telescope, and we had high hopes for the evening.

Those hopes were granted when, a couple of hours after sunset, the sky cleared dramatically, and thousands of stars came into view. There is something magical about seeing the sky come alive with light after a long day in the sun, especially if you are used to seeing only a few dozen stars in light polluted skies.

There was more magic too, at least for me. Regular readers know I get a lot of email from readers asking me questions about astronomy, and I love to answer them. But there's something even more special about having people right there, standing under the starry vault, asking questions nonstop for an hour. We talked about black holes, escape velocity, the Big Bang, other galaxies, just about everything. The people that came to the camp were friends of the owners or people that used to go to camp; they weren't astronomers or scientists or anything like that. They were mortgage bankers, stay-at-home parents, architects, all sorts of different people. But they all were enchanted by the stars at night.

I want to stress that. It's important to me, but I also think it's important to everyone. These people didn't come because they were interested in the dark skies, specifically, but they were all drawn to it when it got dark. I think this is true for everyone, and we have somehow lost this desire because most people don't live in really dark areas anymore. But when they get out there, bang! It's like being a kid again and believing in magic.

My point: go out and do what we did. Find someplace dark and quiet and sit out under the stars. Not necessarily at Camp Nimrod, though it's a beautiful spot (and there's lots to do besides skywatching). But find someplace out of the way and pay it a night visit. There's magic and wonder in the air, and all you have to do is find it.

For more about light pollution and what it's doing to us, take a look at the Dark Sky Association website. For info about star parties, where amateur astronomers get together and share the sky, try taking a look at the Texas Star Party website, or the Nebraska Star Party website. For local clubs in your area, take a look at a page I have with links to many many clubs.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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