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I wrote on why we should care about “dark sky” issues a few years ago for the local newspaper in Lake Geneva. Despite a modest recent upsurge in interest in space exploration, it still applies to our relationship with the dark sky.

 

ALL THERE IS?

Driving northwest from Chicago, toward Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, as we begin to cross farmland, I notice domes of light pop up on the horizon. I soon learned that these are artificial light emissions rising up from villages and towns and shopping and industrial areas. These light domes are what astronomers call light pollution, and they increasingly make the sky seem to glow while interfering with man’s ability to see the stars clearly. Scientists now know that some 50 percent of the light on earth seen from space is wasted energy, serving no purpose, accidentally spilling upward. An estimated one and a half billion dollars a year of such wasted light energy is emitted skyward from the U.S. alone. Now, some two-thirds of the night sky around our globe is clouded by such man-made light pollution.

One of the often overlooked dimensions of conservation in our natural habitat is man’s wasteful and damaging pollution of the night sky with un-needed and easily attenuated man-made light. This is one aspect of atmospheric pollution we can readily control.

Way too many of our street lights, security lights, and shopping lights, from major cities like Chicago to small towns like Lake Geneva are robbing our people, young and old, of seeing the wonders of the night sky. The Milky Way, the massive galaxy of which the earth is a part, is invisible to most people in cities and even small towns. Most of the starry sky is invisible, because of modern light pollution.

When the University of Chicago opened Yerkes Observatory, the world’s first astrophysical laboratory and still home to the largest conventional telescope ever created, on the shores of Lake Geneva in the tiny village of Williams Bay, it was because there was little to no light pollution. The village, some 85 miles from Chicago, had yet to be electrified in 1897 when the famed observatory opened, and the large lake provided the observatory almost absolute darkness for viewing toward the east, south, and west.  Even today, when most modern research telescopes are located on mountain tops in remote unpopulated areas, we were recently able on a clear summer’s night to stand on the lawn outside Yerkes and, prompted by an expert observer, begin with our naked eyes, to make out the Milky Way and other long unseen mysteries of the stellar umbrella.

Having just seen a documentary on light pollution called “The City Dark” on PBS, that talked about the disappearance of details in the night sky for so many people, and even the possibility that too much light at night could contribute to health problems for some, I experienced an “aha” moment about modern society. Part of the film’s premise is that light pollution was taking away the visual connection to the vastness of the universe among younger generations, and perhaps contributing to a growing self-centeredness. I wondered if the lack of public and governmental support for a manned space program is partly because we are being increasingly disenfranchised in our relationship to the cosmos.

Have today’s generations begun to believe that our increasingly urban life here on earth, under our expanding localized bubbles of light, is “all there is” for mankind? Or are we still part of a cosmic continuum that offers endless learnings, exploration and even a relative eternity of succession for our species and life now on earth? Pointing our man-made lights downward and lifting our eyes once again to the night sky may point the way to fresh possibilities.

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https://www.wgtd.org/playlist/community-matters/community-matters-060218

 

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Contact: Chuck Ebeling

262-581-6229 ceebeling@hotmail.com

 

Press Points – Saving Yerkes Observatory– May 2, 2018

 

  1. A new foundation, the Yerkes Future Foundation (YFF), today sent an “Expression of Interest” letter to David Chiaro, associate VP of the University of Chicago, indicating that concerned citizens of the Geneva Lake areas have come together as a cohesive organization with the desire to work with the university regarding the transfer of ownership of Yerkes Observatory, including its contents and associated land. The university had previously announced it plans to close Yerkes on Oct. 1, 2018 and is open to proposals regarding its future.

 

  1. The chair of YFF is Dianna Colman, a local Geneva Lake area resident, who heads a group of founding members.

 

  1. It was on this day 125 years ago that the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 opened, and one of the displays was the revolutionary new 40-inch telescope – then and now the world’s largest operating through-the-lens telescope – which would be installed at the new Yerkes Observatory near the shores of Geneva Lake, Wisconsin, in 1897.

 

 

  1. The goals of YFF are to preserve the historic features of both the observatory building and the site and at the same time make the facility open to the public, available for youth development and continuing education as a science center.

 

  1. A public meeting is planned by YFF to introduce and discuss its Expression of Interest, to be held Monday, May 14, at George Williams College of Aurora University, at Williams Bay, Wisconsin, at 7 pm in the Seabury Room in Beasley Campus Center.

 

  1. This proposal is being made by YFF “with a genuine concern for all aspects of the Yerkes entity but also with a deep respect for the Village of Williams Bay, its citizenry, the greater Geneva Lake community and the future, science, astronomy and architectural students who will benefit from the open and enhanced environment of Yerkes Observatory.”

 

 

  1. The YFF believes an endowment of at least 10 to 15 million dollars will be needed to preserve and operate the observatory, depending on deferred capital expenses necessary to have the building and grounds meet minimum standards.

 

  1. The YFF encourages the University of Chicago to give their proposal prompt and thoughtful consideration and looks forward to entering a dialog with the university leading to a good result.

4062701932_59b0acdc52_m The University of Chicago has, once again after 13 years, decided to close famed Yerkes Observatory, the birthplace of American astrophysics and still home to the world’s largest operating lens type telescope. The University’s previous effort to shut down Yerkes began in 2005, when the college announced they planned to sell Yerkes to Mirbeau, an eastern resort company, for $10 million, to build a spa/resort on the lakefront Yerkes property and homes around the observatory main complex. The fate of the observatory structure and its contents were left up in the air.

The Lake Geneva community rose up at the prospective desecration of this beloved historical cradle of American astronomy, that includes the last 550 feet of undeveloped shoreland on the 26-mile circumference, spring-fed Lake Geneva, as well as acres of adjacent heavily wooded, steep land that had remained untouched for 120 years, since the university acquired it.

The uproar from the lakes community, university alumni, the news media and astronomy fans across the globe was so strong that by 2007 UC withdrew from their contract with Mirbeau, and agreed to continue to operate and invest in Yerkes as an astro-science education facility. Then just a few weeks ago,  the university issued a news release saying that it once again plans to permanently close the doors at Yerkes, on October 1, 2018. Their subsequent plans for the observatory and its full 77-acre site are yet unknown. They have indicated they are open to proposals, though no potential terms have yet been announced. The local community is gathering forces and planning what steps to take to preserve this legendary stairway to the stars.

Yerkes Observatory opened the world’s eyes to the wonders of the universe, and the long lenses still playing across the night skies continue to have the capacity to open the minds of young people everywhere to new possibilities. Hopefully, the great university and the community that has been home to Yerkes for 120 years will use that long perspective to pave the way to an even brighter future for Yerkes, the great stargazer.

ALL THERE IS

Saturday night saw us climb the historic steps of Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin, for an evening of showering meteors, music wafting up from the lake shore, and fireworks over the Bay. Yerkes is the world’s first astrophysical laboratory, and home to the world’s largest conventional telescope. Visiting friends from Chicago prompted us to join Yerkes chief tour guide Richard Dreiser for a late night reverie under the annual Perseid meteor shower.

We began the evening in the darkness outside the observatory, straining our naked eyes and using binoculars to spot the first few meteors racing across the sky. We spotted several man-made satellites too, including the space station, making their slow un-twinkling progress, unlike the high airplanes with their strobing. Gradually we spotted various stars, and then the foamy Milky Way began to appear. Meanwhile soft strains of music drifted up to us from the waterside pavilion that is home to the Music By The Lake summer series at George Williams College.

Then, we walked the long corridor and up a three-story circular staircase to the dome of the 24-inch reflector. As the dome motor cranked away, and the giant curving blades parted, slight flashes reflected the fireworks show beginning a mile away at the Bay, where hundreds of pleasure boats gathered to watch. We then each had a chance to view Saturn and its rings, and M57, the spectacular summer centerpiece of the northern hemisphere night skies, pictured here. It was a magical evening under the stars.

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Fresh from the director of Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin…

DECEMBER ASTRONOMICAL EVENTS
…….you can watch without a telescope.

First, the Geminid meteor shower will peak on Monday night and Tuesday morning December 13-14, though there should be a reasonable number of meteors visible for a few nights before and after that. Meteors, often called shooting stars, are seen as streaks of light moving rapidly across the sky. They are actually small particles burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Earth encounters streams of these particles at specific times each year, resulting in predictable meteor showers. The August Perseid meteor shower is probably best known, but the December Geminids are often equally good (though December weather is more often cloudy and temperatures are less pleasant for spending night hours outdoors). To watch these meteors, dress very warmly, find a reasonably dark location, and look up. You should see at least several meteors in a half hour of watching, depending on how clear and dark the sky is. Geminids will appear to streak away from the constellation of Gemini, north of the well-known figure of Orion, but can be seen in any part of the sky, so watch the darkest part of your sky. Gemini will have risen in the eastern sky by 8 pm, though the best meteor viewing will be when it is much higher around and after midnight. The Moon will brighten the western sky somewhat during the first half of the night on Dec. 13-14.

The second event is a total eclipse of the Moon on Monday night and Tuesday morning December 20-21. Lunar eclipses occur when the Moon passes through Earth’s shadow. The partial phase of this eclipse will begin at 12:33 am, though there should be some shadowing visible for perhaps half an hour before that. The Moon will be totally eclipsed from 1:41 to 2:17 am, with another partial phase following totality. The Moon will move from very high in the southeast to moderately high in the west during these hours. During totality the Moon is sometimes so dim as to be almost invisible, but more often is easily visible with a reddish color. Unlike a meteor shower, where one should plan to spend quite awhile outdoors in a reasonably dark location, a lunar eclipse can be viewed by simply going outdoors a few minutes at a time anywhere, and even with a partly cloudy sky. The next total lunar eclipse visible from here will occur in mid-April 2014, an unusually long gap between such eclipses, so try to catch this one if weather permits.

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