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Why Should We Protect Dark Skies? An Interview with Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis  looking through telescope

I am Jerry Samford with VPM’s Science Matters' Leadership Team and I have had the pleasure of talking with Mr. Michael Lewis recently. Michael is an amateur astronomer who has been watching the stars and learning about our universe for many years. He is currently a member of the Richmond Astronomical Society and the International Dark Sky Association. I want to talk with Michael to learn more about how he fell in love with Astronomy, what fascinating things are out there that we can all observe from our own backyards, and what we can do to preserve dark night skies for future generations.

SAMFORD: Michael, how did you first get interested in the International Dark Sky Association?

LEWIS: I grew up in a place with a wonderful view of the night sky without excess light. Looking up and seeing stars was a normal everyday thing for me. Then, several years ago, I met Ms. Jennifer Barlow at an astronomy event. In 2002, Barlow was a 15-year old high school student in Midlothian, Virginia when she started what has become International Dark Sky Week. She made a huge contribution to the study of astronomy at a young age. Ms. Barlow reminded people that the night sky was a resource that needed preservation for future generations.  Under a night sky without excess light, many people have witnessed the wonder of the universe for thousands of years. Ms. Barlow reminded people that future generations needed this connection to our marvelous universe.

SAMFORD: What does the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) do? Do they have particular programs you are focused on?

LEWIS: The International Dark Sky Association works to reduce light pollution and protect the night sky. They have a wide variety of educational programs from reducing nightime light spread to designating dark sky places. When I learned more about The IDA, I joined the organization and I participate in activities such as the IDA Globe at Night citizen-science campaign. The next opportunity to participate in this program is in August.

SAMFORD: What is the Globe at Night Citizen Science program?

LEWIS: Astronomy is something anyone can easily do as a citizen scientist. In the Globe at Night program, we make observations of light levels of certain constellations each month and report that online. During International Dark Sky Week [April 19 – 26, 2020; April 4 – 11, 2021], I posted to social media about the event on Facebook and downloaded a Dark Sky Meter phone app. Early in the morning on April 20, I took a reading with the Dark Sky Meter phone app behind my apartment. The reading I got under completely overcast skies was 17.75.

SAMFORD: What would a “good” reading on a dark sky meter be?

LEWIS: The higher the number, the darker the sky. Generally, a reading of 20 or higher indicates a dark sky where stargazing is at its best and the stars of the Milky Way are clearly visible. A reading of 17 or less indicates a sky that is impacted by either artificial light or bright moonlight.

SAMFORD: Well, if you are “confined” to the urban areas with light pollution, what can someone do to be able to get a good view of the night sky?

LEWIS: The Dark Sky Association designates “International Dark Sky Places.” One subset is “dark sky parks.” In Virginia, the James River Park (between Lynchburg and Charlottesville) and the Rappahannock County Park are both designated dark sky places. Other parks, when they are open after sunset, may also be better than the typical urban area because of the relative lack of nearby light pollution. Recently, my friend Ted Bethune and I meet with Nate Clark, Manager of Pocahontas State Park, and discussed several astronomical related projects. We told him we were interested in signing up as volunteers and collecting data at the park to work toward achieving an urban night sky place designation from the IDA. Ted, who is also a member of Richmond Astronomical Society, is interested in setting up telescopes on a field, in the park, at night for stargazing.

SAMFORD: What are your favorite things to watch for?

LEWIS: Some things to watch for are International Space Station (ISS) flybys, meteor showers, comets, and “super moons”. One of my favorite things is a full moon that seems to have a halo around it in a dark winter night sky. This is a wonderful contrast to lunar eclipses and solar eclipses. Eclipses remind me that planets and Moons move in the sky and sometimes occlude one another relative to our view of them from Earth.

SAMFORD: You mentioned comets. Have you been able to see Comet Neowise yet? Can you tell us a little about how to see it?

LEWIS: I have not found it on my own yet. To see it, you need to look to the northwest a little past dusk, when stars are starting to show in a place with a clear view of the northwest horizon. In central Virginia, it will be below the star “Merak”  which is the outer bottom corner of the “big dipper.” You will need binoculars to really see anything.

SAMFORD: What are some of the things that are brightening up the sky? What can the average person do to protect our dark sky places?

LEWIS: One of the things currently happening, in the interest of providing better internet and global communications, is placement of hundreds of micro-satellites into orbit around Earth. SpaceX, just in the past year, has placed 540 Starlink satellites into orbit with plans to ultimately have a “constellation” of 12,000 satellites. I contacted representatives on Congresses Committee on Space, Science and Technology as a private citizen. I voiced my opposition of SpaceX’s launches of thousands of satellites into orbit for Internet access. One would think having more access to the Internet in more areas is good, thanks to these satellites, but professional astronomers are already noticing reflections from these satellites interfering with their work. 

SAMFORD: Are there aspects of astronomy that are not affected by light pollution? What about observations of the sun?

LEWIS: Light pollution does not interfere with observing sunspots during the day. It is a different situation at night when you are looking for Iridium flares or Messier objects for example. You need darkness for viewing faint objects like these. And a cool night when the sky is clear of clouds and the wind is not a distraction is a plus as well.

SAMFORD: Why is it important to society to preserve our dark skies?

LEWIS: It matters because responsible lighting and access to the night and its star-filled sky is a human right. Around the world, light pollution is destroying ancient traditions and knowledge systems. Over-lighting in areas where communities of color are concentrated poses a significant threat. To achieve global success in the work to protect the night, underrepresented voices must be elevated in the solutions to mitigate light pollution, and in the reclamation of cultural connections to the night. The dark sky movement must be safe, relevant, and inclusive of all people of color. We acknowledge that we have fallen short. The IDA is now asking important questions around race, relevance, and inclusion. What are the barriers to relevance and access for Black, indigenous, and/or people of color? How do we break these barriers down? How do we empower diverse voices?”

SAMFORD: What advice do you have for people reading this interview?

LEWIS: Find something about astronomy that sounds like fun to you. And I ask you to share that experience with someone else in writing or a talk. Be moved by the views of the heavens in a dark night sky to help preserve this for others to enjoy. Astronomy is just as accessible to the average person now as it was during ancient times. I became involved with my local astronomy group years ago and nothing has thrilled me more than the first time I saw sunspots safely through a telescope during an Astronomy Day event!

Mr. Samford is the incoming Chairman of VPM’s Science Matters Leadership Team. He is also a Professional Geologist and the Environmental Compliance Specialist for Troutman Pepper in Richmond, Virginia.