Save our dark skies, say scientists

Access to a dark night sky is a basic human right that needs to be protected, a meeting of the world’s professional astronomers has decreed.

The International Space Station trails across a light-polluted night sky where the stars struggle to be seen.The International Astronomical Union passed a resolution calling on governments to give priority to safeguarding areas that allow observation of the stars. Scientists at the two-yearly gathering of space scientists, held this month in Brazil, warned that the light pollution went beyond the issue of studying the universe.

It was a problem that affected species other than Man, and should be tackled as part of nature conservation, they said. Better designed artificial lighting, such as street lamps, and more efficient use of energy needed to be employed to help combat light pollution. Tourism could also consider the night sky as part of the landscape that needed to be protected.

A resolution on “Defence of the night sky and the right to starlight” was put forward by American astronomers Richard Wainscoat and Malcolm Smith, who have worked on IAU comissions examining the light pollution.

Their resolution declared that:

1. An unpolluted night sky that allows the enjoyment and contemplation of the firmament should be considered an inalienable right equivalent to all other socio-cultural and environmental rights. Hence the progressive degradation of the night sky must be regarded as a fundamental loss.

2. Knowledge – armed with education – is a powerful vector that can heal the growing rift between today’s society and science and contribute to the advancement of mankind as a whole. The dissemination of astronomy and associated scientific and cultural values should be considered as basic content to be included in educational activities.

3. Protection of the quality of astronomical areas suitable for scientific observation of the Universe must be given priority in national and international scientific and environmental policies.

4. Control of obtrusive light must be a basic element of nature conservation policies since it impacts on several species, habitats, ecosystems, and landscapes.

5. The intelligent use of artificial lighting that minimises sky glow and avoids obtrusive visual impact on both humans and wildlife should be promoted. This strategy would involve more efficient use of energy so as to meet the wider commitments made on climate change, and for the protection of the environment.

6. Tourism, among other players, can become a major instrument for a new alliance in defence of the quality of the nocturnal skyscape. Responsible tourism, in its many forms, can and should take on board the night sky as a resource to protect and value in all destinations.

7. Necessary measures should be implemented to involve all parties related to skyscape protection in raising public awareness – be it at local, regional, national, or international level – about the contents and objectives of the International Conference in Defence of the Quality of the Night Sky and the Right to Observe Stars.

Picture: The International Space Station trails across a light-polluted night sky where the stars struggle to be seen. (Credit: Paul Sutherland).

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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