Stankowski Field will shut off lights to darken skies

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 | 7:44 p.m. CST; updated 10:49 p.m. CST, Tuesday, December 9, 2008

COLUMBIA — Just a few miles outside Columbia city limits, an amateur stargazer can see the Ring nebula using just a pair of binoculars. Astronomers using the telescope in MU's Laws Observatory have a bit more trouble.

"We cannot see it from our telescope, and we should be able to," said Angela Speck, associate professor of astronomy at MU. The bright lights that illuminate Stankowski Field after dark make it difficult for people in the observatory to see far into space when the telescope is pointed south or west.

"They're not pointing downwards," Speck said of the lights. "Some of them are pointed directly toward our telescope."

But for the next year, MU's Department of Recreation Services and Facilities, which is in charge of Stankowski, has agreed to turn off the lights on the field for two hours per month in observation of the International Year of Astronomy. The yearlong celebration marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's first observations through a telescope.

Wednesday will be the first night the Dark Sky program will take effect. Those two hours will coincide with the observatory's public hours, which are 8 to 10 p.m. every Wednesday.

Having the lights turned off should improve the visibility from the dome. Speck said she hopes to use those two hours per month to demonstrate the impact light pollution has on the telescope.

"The plan is to try and look at some of the things we should be able to see but we just can’t," Speck said. "We’re going to try and get some images through the telescope and show the difference."

Speck said she might try to expand the dark hours in the future to provide more time to use the telescope as a teaching tool.

Val Germann, president of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, helps run the observatory's public hours. He agreed with Speck. "Those lights spill into the dome and light up the whole inside of the dome, so what they do is ruin your night vision," Germann said.

He also suggested that a more permanent solution might be shielding the lights, which would cut down on light pollution while still allowing people to use the field, located at Maryland Avenue and Rollins Road. However, this solution might be too expensive to be practical, he said.

For the International Year of Astronomy, the Central Missouri Astronomical Association has planned events centered on Galileo and hopes to draw in larger crowds at both of their venues: Laws Observatory and the planetarium at Rock Bridge High School.

"We intend to have some kind of special program once a month at both locations throughout the year," Germann said. "We set a goal as a club to have 10,000 people look through our telescopes next year."

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