Before finding stars, astronomers find dark

Every month a group of Charlotte-area star gazers pack up their telescopes and head 45 miles south, deep into rural Lancaster County.

There, the amateur astronomers find a precious commodity the Queen City no longer offers – darkness.

Thirty years ago Charlotte's nights were so clear and dark that, with the right combination of curiosity and equipment, you could see new worlds from your back yard.

But with growth comes light. And lots of it.

Street lights. House lights. Car lights. Flood lights. All contribute to the ambient blanket that spreads across the region and blocks out the stars.

“Charlotte has a world-class speedway, a world-class football team and world-class light pollution,” said Gayle Riggsbee, a longtime member of the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club. “And it's not going to change. I'm afraid it's a lost cause in this area.”

Experts figure that two-thirds of the world's population – including nearly everyone in the continental United States – lives with light pollution.

Many people don't see a problem with it. To them, more light means more safety.

But a growing number of health experts are researching how a lack of true darkness can affect someone's health, including a potential link to cancer.

Scientists have already discovered that it affects hundreds of species, from sea turtles to birds, whose breeding cycles and migratory patterns are disrupted by artificial light.

In some of the darker rural areas, amateur astronomers can still see about 2,000 stars at night, depending on weather conditions and the time of the month. But inside most cities, only a handful of stars remain visible.

“One day you will leave the bubble of Charlotte, only to enter the bubble of Hickory and never leave the light,” said Dan Caton, an astronomer at Appalachian State University.

Caton said light pollution is especially an issue for professional astronomers. Many observatories, located in remote regions of the country, are now threatened by urban development and population growth.

The International Dark-Sky Association suggests that cities install lights with shields that direct their glow downward. The organization also suggests using lower-wattage bulbs, turning off lights after businesses are closed and prohibiting outdoor spotlights.

Some area cities have attempted to address the problem. In 2000, Weddington adopted an outdoor lighting ordinance. And this year Pineville adopted new laws that require at least partially shielded lights. Charlotte has ordinances dealing with lights, but none that address light pollution.

Even in towns that do, many older lights have been grandfathered in. The end result: local astronomers have to seek dark skies elsewhere.

“In town you can see the bright stars and some of the planets,” said Bonner Mills, a Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club member. “But forget about seeing the faint fuzzies, the nebulas and galaxies. For any serious observation, you have to get out of town.”

Graying out

Almost every month, at the new moon, Charlotte Amateur Astronomers gather at an observatory hidden in rural South Carolina – a region home to more critters than people.

Cut out of a pine forest, the four-acre spot houses the group's larger telescopes, as well as several concrete observation pads.

Club members have met here since light pollution chased them from their Union County observatory in 1995, a place selected after the same problem chased the group out of Charlotte in 1977.

So far it has been a good fit. On a cool, cloudless night, the stars hang low in the sky and outnumber the bugs. But even though the astronomers are surrounded by little more than fields and trees, they know their time in the dark – even here – is limited.

“This will get wiped out, too,” Riggsbee said. “Not in my lifetime, but in 10 or 15 years….”

For members, such eventualities are met with resignation. Most can remember what brought them to the hobby. The first time they ground a mirror to create a telescope. Their first comet. Their first galaxy.

On a recent Saturday, several members met at the observatory for a star party. After they were done setting up personal telescopes, a handful met around the 24-inch reflecting telescope built by Riggsbee.

The retired machine design engineer had worked the night before to get it ready and they wanted to admire his handiwork. The youngest member was in his 50s, the oldest in his 80s.

The powerful tool can be used to peer not only miles away, but light years. Still, astronomers don't need its help to see the future.

Computers and TVs now capture the interest of children, far more than the subtle pleasures of scanning the universe one star at the time.

And now even the simplest astronomy requires a road trip.

“We are graying out,” Caton said. “The kids that used to make their own telescopes are now what? Computer geeks?”

Caton said there is only one way to stop it. The astronomy community has to start fighting for comprehensive light pollution ordinances.

Most agree this is a tough sell. Progress' steady march is hard to slow, but star gazers – professional and amateur – have to try.

“You can't just keep driving farther and farther out,” Caton said. "Eventually you will not be able to escape the light.”