Astronomers Fight Light Blight

Call for dimming streetlights to bring stars back into view

It's not easy being an astronomer in the 21st century. Gazing into the sky, trying to make out the Milky Way, the North Star or satellites orbiting above the earth, one often sees nothing but the glare of artificial lights, which blots out nature's real show. Astronomers need darkness to examine various celestial bodies, and local stargazers have thus been forced to escape to isolated desert hilltops, far from the city, to get a glimpse of truly dark skies.

Now, a group of local astronomy buffs has initiated an online petition calling on government authorities to reduce street lighting in an effort to "return" the stars to the sky.

While the harmful effects of air, water and soil pollution are known, light pollution is not taken as seriously. Indeed, it has not yet been proven that it causes damage other than to our ability to look skyward and enjoy the celestial show.

"To date," said Ido Barkat, who initiated the online campaign, "several hundred people have signed the petition, which doesn't seek to darken the cities, but rather to [convince the relevant authorities to] install streetlights that illuminate the ground, not the sky."

After a few hundred more people sign the petition, Barkat intends to approach government ministries and Knesset members about the issue.

Barkat comes from a family of amateur astronomers, who installed an observatory in their house in Modi'in. About three years ago, they approached the municipality to complain about streetlights that were ruining their view of the heavens. City officials initially refused to do anything, Barkat explained, but after they calculated the costs and benefits, they found it was cheaper to install smart systems, which use less energy.

"The municipality acceded to our request and streetlights were replaced," Barkat stated, adding, "Modi'in is the first city in the Middle East that implemented a dark-sky policy like this ... A generation of children could grow up here that doesn't see real stars, just the ones on television."

Said astrophysicist Amri Wandel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who intends to sign Barkat's petition: "There is no doubt that the problem is one of awareness."

Tomorrow a magnificent meteor shower is expected to be seen in Israel, but it will only be clearly visible in dark locales. One or two meteors are expected to pass over the country every minute, meaning there will be some 200 or so meteors per hour. Barkat and Wandel have already staked out a small rise in an isolated place in the center of the country to watch the show.