Reclaiming your night sky
Graihagh Jackson turns to the community who chose to restrain their light usage. There is an international campaign for dark skies who don’t necessarily want us to return to the dark ages but want us to think sensibly about light design. And it seems to be quite effective, since when I arrived at the Lewes Light Festival to meet Graham Festenstein and Dan Oakley...
Graihagh - I’ve just arrived at the Lewes light festival and, of course, greeted by absolute pitch black. So much so that all my wires are tangled and I can’t see what I’m doing. Good news, though… it is a starry night and not a cloud in the sky, which hopefully means we should be able to do some good stargazing…
Woman - I was told there was a man in the moon - maybe he’s hiding.
Graihagh - But, before I did any of that, I ran into Graham Festenstein
Graham - I’m a lighting designer and I’m also the festival director for Lewes Light. From my perspective, our main thing is the glow worm so we’ve been working with a scientist from Sussex University who is researching into the impact of artificial light glow worms and that’s inspired us to do this installation.
Graihagh - This is when we walked through there were a series of sort of hawthorn bushes and they’ve got lots of little green lights hanging from them.
Graham - That’s right yes. And we’ve been working with Alan to look at developing these so they actually approximate glow worms. But what we’ve done is we’ve put the light installation at the bottom of the hill and the idea here is to get people who maybe don’t come out and do this kind of thing to come along, look at the lights and then they can keep coming up and then they can come and look at the other activities - the astronomy, and the bats, and the moths, and just enjoy being out in the darkness.
Graihagh - It’s funny because you never really think about going out to enjoy the darkness do you? But I decided to face my fear of witches biting my toes off and head into the night to see what I could see…
Everyone hear that… so that’s us finding our dinner if we were a bat.
Graihagh - There were no bats sadly – what you can hear is a demo - but further up the hill, we could find its prey: Moths.
Ironically, though, the cloudless skies I had been praying for had meant it was so cold, this was the only moth we caught…
My favourite fact was about why moths swarm lights – they’ve evolved to circumnavigate darkened landscapes using the moon. But when they see other bright lights, they get confused and they keep trying to re-orientate and re-orientate to map out their destination but alas, no amount of orientation is going to help them and so they just end up getting so confused they endless fly at the light. Sad really…
Dan - The light festival’s doing dark sky friendly installations and all the things here are fairly low powered and I think the Moon's putting out more light than the light festival at the moment. So right now it’s fantastic - we’ve got lots of people looking through the telescope and enjoying the sights of the telescope at work.
Graihagh - Dan Oakley from the South Downs National Park and he calls it “the telescope of wow” because everyone who looks down it makes that noise of adoration. I joined the so-called “Moon queue” determined not to go “wow.” But… the first thing out of my mouth… oh wow - classic - it’s like the Moon’s got acne. You definitely get a better idea of what Buzz Aldrin and everyone might have felt when they landed on the moon.
Dan - Yeah.
Graihagh - And I wasn’t the only one enamoured…
Woman - It looked fascinating. It looked like a load of soap bubbles that have popped on a bar of soap. It was amazing.
Graihagh - I guess you’ve never seen the Moon in that way before?
Woman - No. No, absolutely not. It’s not made of cheese, that’s all I can say.
Graihagh - did you look as well?
Man - I did and I thought it looked like cheese! Kind of Italian creamy gorgonzola cheese.
Graihagh - No wonder Wallace and Gromit wanted to go to the Moon.
Man - A glass of red wine and I’ll be quite happy now. Cheese and wine party.
Graihagh - Although the Moon illuminated the landscape around us, it was clear to me that this would have normally been pretty darn dark, and that’s even though we’re right on the cusp of the park where dark sky’s reach towns and cities.
Behind me it was pitch black; not a fleck of light on the horizon. In front of me… Well, there were rays everywhere. But it was more than that - the cities glowed. They bathed the night sky with an aurora and this is what Dan Oakley kind of set out to change.
Dan - When we became a national park, part of that process was to consult with all the residents and talk about the qualities of the park, and one of those special qualities was tranquillity and dark skies. And so when we looked at our management plan we noticed that our skies were getting brighter so we decided to do something about it and start this dark skies project.
Graihagh - So what classifies as a dark sky?
Dan - To be classified as a dark sky you need to really be able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye, and the other good thing to see as well is the Andromeda galaxy. If you can see those two things then they call that an intrinsic dark sky.
Graihagh - You took something like was it three thousand measurements over a few years, every night
Dan - Almost, it was more like thirty thousand and the park is sixteen hundred square kilometres, plus the outside bits - that’s quite a few nights. So we had a special sky quality monitor made up for us that could record at time intervals, so we just set it at five seconds and we just drove around the towns and recorded it over all those nights and all those cold mornings.
Graihagh - Are you naturally a night owl or was this a bit of a strain?
Dan - I thought I always was but I really do think I am now, so getting up in a morning is really difficult.
Graihagh - It wasn’t just about taking measurements though and saying - Bob’s your uncle, we qualify, wooh. Actually, Dan had to get the council on board to change their street lighting too.
Dan - Well they were coming to the end of all their streetlights. We all remember those horrible orange sodium lights and the were really optically inefficient because they threw a lot of their light upwards and it’s that upward light that creates all the sky glow. So if you look at Lewes, you can see all that sky glow coming out now. When they came to do the streetlights it’s then they put up more optically efficient streetlights which point the light downwards, and because that lights not going upwards and sideways it means the sky gets better. So a lot of the thanks goes to them really.
Graihagh - It’s a shame because the reason why I came here tonight was to hopefully see the Milky Way with the naked eye for the first time but, alas, it’s not my night to be I think. Because that's the idea of the dark sky’s project is to be able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye, isn’t it?
Dan - Yeah, absolutely. I mean tonight, unfortunately, the whim of the weather and the Moon but, when you can see the Milky Way, you know you’re in a dark sky site and you’ll just smile when you see it. And if you go to some really dark places you can start to make out some of the structure, some of the dust and that just elevates it even further. Then you get a real sense you’re in a galaxy and again, that feels like you’re looking at your house, your home in the Milky Way.