Driftless Dark Skies

John Heasley

Humans have long been skywatchers. We watched the movements of the sun, moon and stars and learned the cycles of days, months, seasons and years. For thousands of generations all over the world, we humans have put our stories in the sky. We looked at the stars, connected the dots, created constellations, and told tales to the next generation so that they would remember what was most important. More recently, astronomers have looked to the stars to read a story going back billions of years of how the cosmos created the galaxies that made the stars that made the elements that coalesced into worlds where life became possible and where some of that life got clever enough to ponder the starry skies.

April 22-30, people all over the planet will be looking up and celebrating this shared heritage during International Dark Sky Week. It’s a time to consider how artificial light at night, when used indiscriminately, is disrupting wildlife, impacting human health, wasting money and energy, contributing to climate change, and blocking our view of the starry skies. And it’s a problem we can lessen with simple solutions by making sure all outdoor lights have a clear purpose, are properly shielded and directed only where needed, are no brighter than necessary, are used only when needed and controlled with timers and motion detectors, and use bulbs that are marked 2700 Kelvin or lower.

Head out this month and discover the night for yourself. April begins with a new moon, and you can enjoy the waxing crescent moon the first week of the month. The full paschal moon lights up the landscape on Easter weekend. Then we have moon-free evening skies when the spring stars are even more brilliant. Early risers can look low in the east before dawn to see a lineup of four planets and watch the waning crescent moon below Saturn on the 24th, Mars on the 25th, Venus on the 26th and Jupiter on the 27th. Don’t miss the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on the 30th when they will be less than a moon’s width apart.

The public lands at state and county parks are wonderful places to enjoy the dark skies of the Driftless Area. Be sure to check out the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway (FLOW) Dark and Starry Sky project at wisconsinriverfriends.org/dark-starry-skies. It’s a great guide to discover why dark skies matter, where to find them, how to enjoy them, and ways to preserve them.

Look up this spring and be awed by the stories in the starry skies!

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador, with the IAU as a Dark Skies Ambassador, and with International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.