A year ago, the Ramon Crater acquired a major commitment to go with its existing fame. The American International Dark Sky Association declared the area of the crater to be an international dark-sky park. The purpose of declaring such a preserve is to promote astronomy there because the area is free from light pollution.
Israel is the first country in the Middle East to have such a designated park. This should turn the crater, technically known as a makhtesh, into an important tourist site for both professional astronomers and amateur stargazers.
So far 54 other nature reserves in 15 nations worldwide have received this title, which recognizes sites where the night sky is maintained in its natural state, preserving the unique appearance of the starry night sky in all its glory for ecological, astronomical and cultural reasons.
This is especially important in Israel’s Negev Desert in the summer when the heat makes it difficult to hike and tour during the day.
The Dark Sky Park is an area where the night sky is preserved in its natural state, without the interference of artificial light or light pollution caused by street lights.
This is quite simple to achieve in the crater’s natural environment, but very complicated in the urban environment of the nearby town of Mitzpeh Ramon.
To keep up with the commitment required by the title, the Mitzpeh Ramon local council and the Tourism Ministry have launched a joint project to replace the street lights with money-saving, environment friendly lighting – the closest possible thing to natural lighting – to help reduce the light pollution.
The project’s cost is estimated at 4 million shekels ($1.1 million) and the move is accompanied by professional advisors from the Or Mekuvan nonprofit organization.
The project involves installing street lights in Mitzpeh Ramon that, unlike the customary upward directed lights that have negative effects and especially frustrate star gazers, are aimed in a narrow cone downward and don’t spread sideways. So far, about 80 percent of the town’s street lights have been replaced and the rest are to be replaced in the next few months.
There is still some unclarity about changing the lighting in public institutions and private sites like hotels. In the past there was a lively argument about the lighting in the Beresheet Hotel overlooking the makhtesh. The Dark Sky Park founders demanded dimming the lighting or directing it in a different way.
Project founder Dr. Noam Lidar, chief ecologist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, says about two-thirds of the world’s population today can no longer see the night sky, because their view is obscured by overly bright artificial light.
Scientific studies have shown in recent years that exposure to intense artificial light is harmful to our health and leads, among other things, to reduced metabolic and neurological function and lower melatonin levels. It also damages the development of animals, which need natural light.
Nadav Silbert, an outdoor and astronomy tour guide and owner and manager of the Bateva mobile star observatory and planetarium, says that recognizing the observatory as a Dark Sky Park could draw tourists from all over the world and transform the local tourism scene.
Silbert is guiding local scientists these days as well as tourists. On July 27 an event in Mitzpeh Ramon will focus on the moon eclipse that will be observed that night. The event will be held with the SpaceIL organization to land the first Israeli spaceship on the moon, as part of the Lunar X Prize challenge sponsored by Google.