Enlightening The Darkness: An Urban Stargazer Looks for the Galaxy

The Milky Way rises above the glow of light pollution from Lancaster, Palmdale, and Los Angeles as stargazers gather to watch meteors in the Antelope Valley. | Photo: Ken Lee

When the Perseid Meteor Shower made its annual celestial light show earlier this month, I gathered a group of sky-curious friends to gather for an informal meteor-watching party in the northwestern Antelope Valley to watch it. We enjoyed a potluck meal of snacks and finger foods, and proceeded to watch the debris from comet Swift-Tuttle streak their way into our atmosphere in the form of "shooting stars."

The viewing spot was an area I had adopted as my western Mojave Desert "neighborhood" after learning my parents own a small plot of vacant land in the vicinity, and since 2010, the dirt shoulder of a major road there served as our viewing locale of choice, just north of the Kern-Los Angeles county border.

Though there are more ideal places to view a dark night sky in Southern California, this was a decent enough location, just a reasonably, short 80-minute drive from the bright lights of Los Angeles. Save for the southeastern and southern skies glowing with the cumulative light pollution of urban Antelope Valley and the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the skies were dark enough to clearly see unmistakable arc of The Milky Way across the sky, along with countless constellations not even visible from our urban climes.

But upon arriving for last year's meteor-watching party -- after skipping the 2011 shower -- I was chagrined to discover the slightly-distracting unison glow of red lights in the northern horizon: all being warning lights atop the giant turbine towers of the Mojave wind power facility. Even worse was the glow of bright white lights emanating from a power station a few miles north. It turned out that even my little desert "neighborhood" was already feeling the effects of development. The 80-minute drive was starting to not be far enough.

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Los Angeles, a city known for its Hollywood stars, and a metropolitan area that's the home of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an aerospace industry that created the Space Shuttle as well as rockets that took humans to the moon, is, ironically, a place where actual stars can hardly be seen. With the greater urban area stretching some 34,000 square miles across five counties, most of it brightly lit at night, a clear nocturnal sky can appear pale grey in some places, with only the moon, a few planets and perhaps a couple dozen actual stars being visible in the urban night sky.

Despite the bright lights of Old Town Monrovia, a visitor views the moon through one of the Sidewalk Astronomers' telescopes. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

But that still doesn't deter Morris "Mojo" and Jane Houston Jones, the San Gabriel Valley "star couple" who founded the Old Town Sidewalk Astronomers, an informal group of professional and amateur starwatchers. The group sets up telescopes in the Old Town sections of Monrovia and Pasadena for two hours each month to give astronomy fans, and ordinary passers-by alike, a chance to appreciate the night sky, even from the bright lights of the big city.

On one recent night in Monrovia, most of the group's telescopes, situated on the southwest corner of Myrtle and Lime avenues in that city's Library Park, were pointed at the waxing gibbous moon shining high in the southern sky. Jones' 14.5-inch Newtonian reflector Litebox telescope, stretching about five feet long, gave visiting viewers an especially detailed view of Earth's natural satellite, with its craters and valleys in plain sight.

The moon, as viewed through Morris Jones' 14.5-inch Netwonian reflector telescope. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Jones, a software engineer for Walt Disney Company with a strong passion for amateur astronomy, describes the group's activities as "performance art with telescopes" and "urban guerrilla astronomy." The group is modeled after the original Sidewalk Astronomers group founded in San Francisco by amateur astronomer John Dobson in 1968.

"Dobson was once asked, 'Why are you doing this?' His reply was, 'Because nobody else is,'" Jones said. "We have no explicit agenda. We just give people an opportunity to appreciate the sky. What they take from that is up to them," he added.

"Most people in the city are looking ahead, looking down," said Jane Houston Jones. "When they're looking through our telescopes, they're looking up -- it just stuns them to see what they've been missing, they have an 'a-ha' moment."

Houston Jones, an outreach specialist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, handles a similar Litebox telescope as her husband's, with this particular one equipped with a 12.5-inch reflector pointing towards a softly-visible dot in the lower western sky. Peering through the eyepiece, though, reveals the striking image of the planet Saturn and its iconic rings, with its moon, Titan, visible to the lower-left of it.

She enthusiastically answers questions and points out notable facts on the ringed planet for the "accidental astronomers," as the group calls them, who view it through her telescope. All the more so, since Houston Jones works on the Cassini mission to Saturn as part of her job.

The telescopes have had a definite effect on the people who look through them.

"We're introducing the night sky to people who hadn't planned on doing that tonight," said Jones. "It changes their world view for a minute."

Houston Jones recalled the moment when a Monrovia park ranger took a moment to see Saturn.

"Here was this big guy in his park ranger uniform, and he instantly turned into a little boy once he looked through the telescope," she said.

Monrovia resident Brie Varni has happened upon the Sidewalk Astronomers many times while walking along Myrtle Avenue and regularly seizes the opportunity to appreciate the sky.

"It's almost surreal, you know that there's thousands of stars up there, but you don't see that in the city, so it's fun to look through these telescopes to see how detailed the universe really is," she said.

The Joneses also organize star parties in darker locales, such as Yosemite National Park's Glacier Point, or the Mojave National Preserve, to give people an opportunity to appreciate the heavens on a totally different level, away from the constant light pollution from the big city.

"If you're born today, there's less than a 50 percent chance you'll ever see The Milky Way in your lifetime," said Jones. "Most people are born in cities and they never leave the city environment."

And it's not just astronomers who are irked by light pollution.

Ken Lee, a San Fernando Valley-based photographer with a penchant for capturing the night sky, said that the act of photographing forces him to connect with the world.

"When you make four-hour exposures in the middle of the night, you inevitably slow down and begin to observe and appreciate more what's going on around you. In our fast-paced, modern world, it's a luxury to be able to watch the stars move across the sky," he said.

"We have become increasingly distanced from the night sky in a way that didn't exist 100 years ago, or even 50 or 60 years ago," said Lee, who prefers to travel to locales like Borrego Springs, the Mojave Desert, or the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in Eastern California to capture his night shots. "People stay up late, watch TV, stay on their computer...cities are becoming more populated, and with that comes more activity, and therefore, more light. The dark sky is disappearing, and with it, our appreciation and perspective of the night sky. It's not only damaging from a research point of view, but perhaps for much of humankind."

Lately I've been thinking about that family-owned plot of land out in the Antelope Valley. My parents bought it in the 1970s as an investment, with the hopes of selling it when the area would eventually be urbanized. Though Lancaster is definitely more urbanized today, that urbanization didn't quite reach that far, and I'm actually glad. I'd like to go back and visit that plot of land in the near future, perhaps landscape it and hold future meteor-watching parties there on the "family ranch."

But as development in the form of energy facilities become more prevalent out there, I might only have a few more years left to enjoy that view of the dark skies and meteor showers, located just 80 minutes away.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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