11 February 2020

An Astronomy Project to Share on Valentine's Day

Constance Walker, NOAO, AAS LPRISD Committee Member, Astronomical Society of the Pacific BOD

This post is adapted from an NSF's OIR Lab press release:

Here's an idea for a fun astronomy project you can do with your students; with visitors to your museum, planetarium, or observatory; and/or with family, friends, and neighbors.

Few sights are more romantic than a star-filled sky, but there are fewer and fewer places on Earth where we can still enjoy a truly dark, star-filled sky. Light pollution means we risk losing one of the most romantic spectacles in nature, so this Valentine’s Day astronomers at the National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NSF's OIR Lab) are asking the public to help show their love for the stars by making light pollution observations as part of the Globe at Night program.

As new LED lights increasingly replace older technologies illuminating our streets, gardens, and public spaces, astronomers are left asking whether the night sky is getting brighter or darker as a result. While measuring the brightness of the sky at isolated observatories is part of the night-to-night work of astronomers, knowing what’s going on in backyards around the world is a lot harder, and they’re turning to the public for help. The project asks participants to look up at the sky, and then choose which of a set of eight star maps most closely matches what they see. The project doesn’t require detailed knowledge about constellations or astronomy. As long as you can find Orion, you can take part!

Orion in light-polluted and dark skies

Left: Orion viewed from the suburbs. Right: Orion viewed from a remote rural area.

This year, the February Globe at Night campaign is starting on Valentine’s Day. Given the connection between the night and romance, why not add a stargazing session to your Valentine’s plans? Even if your Valentine’s night turns out cloudy, there are plenty of other opportunities to take part. Campaigns for 2020, using the constellation of Orion, will run through 23 February and again from 14 to 24 March. During the rest of the year, opportunities using other constellations can be found on the project website. During any of the 10-day campaigns each month, held when the bright Moon isn't up in the evening, measurements can be submitted on the report page (web app).

While it might seem surprising that we're asking for observations from the general public, citizen science can lead to real breakthroughs. A paper published in Nature Astronomy in 2018 stated that when it comes to discovering whether the sky is getting brighter or darker worldwide, “naked-eye observations are the key.” Just as the beauty of the night sky can be enjoyed by anyone, anyone anywhere can help keep starry skies spellbinding.

The Globe at Night project needs as many measurements as possible to get a global picture of the state of our night skies. So, if you’ve got chemistry with your date this Valentine’s Day, why not treat them to some astronomy as well?