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Project has Md. seeing stars


The Maryland Science Center is looking for at least 1,500 sets of eyeballs -- people willing to step outside and count stars in the constellation Orion.

Organizers of the experiment hope to gather enough star counts from around the state to assemble a "light-pollution map," revealing where Marylanders can still see the night sky, and where it's disappearing in the glare of poorly designed urban lighting.

It's not a stunt on behalf of a tiny band of backyard astronomers. Organizers say the project -- called "Enlighten Maryland" -- is designed to involve students in real science, and to awaken the public to an issue that affects their safety and their pocketbooks.

"A lot of people haven't even heard of light pollution," said Melissa Jan, the project's coordinator. "We'd like to raise awareness and understanding of what this issue is, and how it goes beyond a lot of strange astronomers."

Light pollution -- and light "trespass," the projection of light where it's not wanted -- are created by poor-quality outdoor lighting that shines horizontally or upward where it's not needed.

The wasted light illuminates treetops and clouds, and obliterates the stars, reducing the 4,000 or so visible under ideal seeing conditions, to as few as 20 in an urban center.

But dark-sky advocates say the "glare bombs" also squander electricity and money, and increase power plant emissions.

Environmentalists argue that the perpetual "daylight" also confuses birds that migrate by the stars, and disrupts the daily rhythms of other wild creatures. Some argue it might also have an impact on human health.

By "shielding" outdoor lighting with fixtures that cut off blinding glare and reflect all the light toward the ground where it's needed, advocates say, governments and business owners can switch to lower-wattage bulbs and save billions of dollars annually without sacrificing illumination or public safety.

They argue that reduced glare makes the streets safer at night, just as automobile visors block the sun's glare and make daytime driving safer.

An 'everybody wins' issue

"It's an issue where everybody wins once they get the idea, and get over the inertia," said David Crawford, executive director of the International Dark Sky Association.

But not everyone has been won over. Cities such as New York and Baltimore still encourage the upward illumination of tall buildings and bridges. Business interests argue that more lighting attracts more business, and many residents equate more light with safer streets.

New York Gov. George E. Pataki recently vetoed a state lighting bill, saying it was too costly to implement and too restrictive. But he left a door open for consideration of an improved bill this year.

Interest in the issue is growing across the country. At least nine states and more than 100 local governments have enacted outdoor lighting legislation, and more bills are pending this year, Crawford said.

In Maryland, concern about light pollution and trespass has been noted by opponents of a $10 million public safety training facility in Howard County; a $5 million outdoor movie theater in Eldersburg; Loyola College athletic fields in Baltimore, and a shopping center renovation in Towson.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is gradually replacing old "cobra-head" street lamps with lower-glare designs, and recommends even less-polluting "full cut-off" lights in parking lots and many commercial sites.

"What we're trying to do is stay ahead of the industry and not wait for legislation to come out and dictate what needs to happen," said Doug Anges, BGE's outdoor lighting supervisor.

Legislation may be coming. Baltimore City and Baltimore County have formed task forces to address the issue. And the state's Task Force to Study Lighting Efficiency and Light Pollution is due to publish its findings and recommendations this month.

The Enlighten Maryland project is modeled on a 1995 effort in the Washington area, sponsored by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. More than 1,500 people helped to produce a map of light pollution across the District and its suburbs.

"Basically, all of D.C. was badly light-polluted ... out to a bit beyond the Beltway," Jan said. "The poorer sections of D.C. were actually much more light-polluted than some of the more affluent places."

It's not that affluent neighborhoods are darker, she said. "They [the affluent] are asking for better-quality lighting."

Participants in Enlighten Maryland are being asked to go outdoors, between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., on any clear evening through Friday. After their eyes adjust to the dark, they will count all the stars they can see in the bright winter constellation Orion, circling them on a star chart available online, or with this article.

25 stars inside the chart

Twenty-five stars are inside the rectangle on the chart -- including the four bright corner stars, Jan said. Some are bright, others are faint.

"Downtown, we expect people will be turning in seven stars, maybe eight," she said. "If we have some submissions from far Western Maryland, or the Eastern Shore -- some places still closer to a perfectly dark sky -- they may count more [than 25]."

The star charts will then be mailed or e-mailed to the Science Center, with the date, time and address of the observation, sky conditions and star counts.

Finally, students in Lisa Bruck's science and astronomy class at Catoctin High School in Thurmont will compile the data and plot it onto a light pollution map, to be published in May.

"The students who are deeply involved will learn how to do science by simply doing it," Jan said.

It also will give them a feel for what a career in science would be like.

But Crawford, at the Dark Sky Association, said everyone who takes part will learn something.

"It gets people aware that there is something up there at night," he said.

Some people just never look.

Several years ago, he said, meteorologists conducted a poll.

"They asked people on the streets in different cities to cover their eyes, and asked them if it was cloudy or clear. Fifty percent didn't know."

And that's why the night sky has gradually faded away, he said.

"We are so out of touch with nature that we don't take care of it anymore."

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