Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

The Cosmic Campground In New Mexico Is A Sanctuary For Star Gazers

Astronomer Al Grauer and his wife Annie were instrumental in getting a dark sky sanctuary designation for the Cosmic Campground in New Mexico. The recognition came from the International Dark Sky Association.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe / KJZZ
Astronomer Al Grauer and his wife Annie were instrumental in getting a dark sky sanctuary designation for the Cosmic Campground in New Mexico. The recognition came from the International Dark Sky Association.

A remote campground in southwest New Mexico has recently become a sanctuary for star gazers seeking a pristine night sky at a time when the rapid spread of light pollution prevents more than half of the world's population from seeing the Milky Way.

The Cosmic Campground In New Mexico Is A Sanctuary For Star Gazers
Stargazing In San Diego GUEST:Mike Chasin, president, San Diego Astronomy Association

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. In the last century, light pollution from urban centers has spread so extensively that more than half the people on earth cannot see the Milky Way. Monica Ortiz takes us to a remote campground in New Mexico designated as the first dark sky sanctuary in the country. It's called the Cosmic Campground. He will find it in the largest and most remote county in Southwest New Mexico. For traffic lights don't exist. In the U.S. Census counts only half a person per square mile. The thing of it is you can see a 360 here. And you can see the last star of the big dipper come up over the edge of Gila Wilderness. Amy Grauer may be a grandmother but she has a kid's enthusiasm for starry skies. She and her husband, an astronomer, were part of the team effort that created the Cosmic Campground. They found a spot off a two lane highway in the Gila National Forest and used special instruments to measure the darkness in the sky. We would come about once a week and we did that for about three months This sent the data to the international dark sky Association, a group dedicated to protecting places with little or no light pollution. IDA review the data and in January, designated the site as a dark sky sanctuary. Only the second in the world. The other is in northern chile. This guy is so dark and there are so many skies up there. it is lighter than you would imagine. One night we were up here and I was walking around out here and I was scared by my own shadow. I could see my shadow by starlight. On a recent summer afternoon coming a crowd of amateur astronomers and science nerds gathered at the Cosmic Campground to celebrate the sanctuary designation. Next to a potluck table, Deborah Culkin and her son Michael, rap to read some of paint on a flashlight to helped him it's intensity at night. We have our star wheels. We have flashlights. I think we are ready for Sunset. Returns that Michael had just gotten a telescope for his 12th birthday. He wanted one ever since he saw the International Space Station by over his house in Silver City, just an hour south of the campground. Because I like science and I'm interested in the stars. Michael is lucky. Scientists estimate that 83% of the world's population lives under light polluted skies. Among other things, people need darkness to help maintain a healthy hormonal balance. Animals like nocturnal birds and sea turtles, needed to migrate, reproduce and find food. After sunset, the Cosmic Campground lies beneath a twinkling canopy of stars. Astronomer, Al Grauer sets up his telescope and invites fellow campers to take a peek. Look straight down into there. Wow. Oh my goodness. That's amazing. It almost looks like a UFO. Is more scientists record the -- recognize the benefit of limiting elimination, workplaces are working to reduce light pollution. The Grand Canyon is currently redesigning thousands of light fixtures within the park to create a more natural nighttime experience for its visitors. At the Cosmic Campground, Sidney helps her three-year-old granddaughter onto a stool so she can peer into the family telescope. What did he say? Jupiter. Do you see the moons? Yes. Count the moons. For Al and his wife, these are the moments that make their efforts worthwhile. Astronomy has ignited kids imagination and human imagination from the beginning. And so what is the price of imagination? Where does the next generation of poets and scientists and engineers and people come from? One answer is to look to the heavens. We may not have a dark sky sanctuary in San Diego but we do have a dark sky community. Joining me is Mike Deeson, president of the San Diego astronomy Association. Welcome to the program. Thank you very much. What is the difference between a dark sky sanctuary that we just heard about in the dark sky community that we have here? There are both designations by the international dark sky Association in the established criteria for different geographic areas. The city of Borrego Springs in Southern California was recently named a dark sky community. That is a recognition of a municipality either a city or county government that hasn't acted certain light restricting ordinances, does public outreach and educates and supports citizens in trying to have as little light aimed at the sky so we can have a darker sky. One that has been named a dark sky sanctuary, this is the pinnacle of dark sky. This community was recognized in New Mexico as having what they consider to be critical dark skies. They are so pristine and so dark that they want to work hard to protect that area and the surrounding areas. I believe there are -- is a 30 or 40 miles radius around this sanctuary that also has dark skies. What can you see in the sky at night in a dark sky community? That is lost in an urban urban environment? Let me answer that by way of an analogy. Let's say you have your phone and it is set to ring you have a quiet because you're going into a concert. You can still hear it ring when you are at home but when you go to hear the concert, you are overwhelmed by the ambient noise. You can to your phone. The same idea is what we have applying to light. In a dark environment you can see that tiny bit of light that has been traveling for thousands of years but is very dim. It's only a few photons per second hitting your eye. In a dark sky, those photons make it through. When you are looking at a bright environment like urban San Diego, gets lost in the sky below. You just don't see a lot of stuff. Exactly. We have heard about the importance of dark sky in connection with Palomar Observatory. Do you know if light pollution is still a problem for that observatory? Yes. And it absolutely is. They have worked very hard since their inception near the turn-of-the-century when it was a pristine sky to maintain the dark skies they have. They have been impacted already. If you go to the observatory website they have great pictures that illustrate this. The good news is there working hard with their surrounding county, the cities around them and even the tribal areas, trying to impact the effects of sky glow. Why is it important for us to experience real darkness at night? We heard some people in this feature talk about the importance of getting that nocturnal cycle are there other reasons why it's important to see the sky in its natural intensity? I think it is a neat thing in that you are able to establish a link with what people could hear 100 years ago. The sky does change every night but by and large you are looking at the same sky that our ancestor did thousands of years ago. It ties us in across this planet and across the many years to see what we used to be able to see anywhere. Now you can see only in the darkest of skies. They were talking about seeing their*shudder. That is so interesting. It was so bright, the sky was so bright it cast a shadow on the earth. That I don't think a lot of people have experienced. Absolutely. You can get that on a full moon where you will see the shadow of the Moon from your own shadow. You have to be in a dark place to see it. What kind of advice would you give people thinking about taking a trip to a dark sky community or a dark sky sanctuary? How can they best enjoy that? I think wherever you are going is to go to the website. Learn what their etiquette is for their dark sky sites. Some big no-no's are using White Lake's or driving in with your headlights on. Sometimes they ask you to turn those off. Astronomers like to use red colored flashlights where you can take red plastic and cover over your flashlight so it does not is rubbed the night vision. It's good to look online at their website and see what will be up that night so you know what good targets will be. I have been speaking with Mike Deeson, president of the San Diego astronomy Association. Thank you very much. Thank you.

Advertisement

San Diego's Dark Sky Community:

Borrego Springs, California

Information on light pollution in San Diego County

The Cosmic Campground lies just off a two-lane highway in Catron County— New Mexico's largest and mostly rural county, where traffic lights don't exisit and the U.S. Census counts half a person per square mile.

"The thing of it is you can see a 360 here. You can see the last star of the Big Dipper come up over the edge of the Gila Wilderness," said Annie Grauer, a writer who's been married to an astromer for the last 40 years.

She and her husband Al Grauer were part of the team effort that created the Cosmic Campground. The couple traveled to a spot in the Gila National Forest just north of Glenwood and used special instruments to measure the darkness of the sky.

"We would come about once a week and we did that for about three months, four months," she said. 


Advertisement

They sent the data to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), a group dedicated to protecting places with little or no light pollution. IDA reviewed the data and in January designated the site as a dark sky sanctuary, only the second in the world. The other is in the Elqui Valley of northern Chile. 


“This sky is so dark and there are so many stars up there it's actually lighter than you would imagine," Grauer said. "One night we were up here and…I was scared by my own shadow. I could see my shadow by starlight.”



On a recent summer afternoon a crowd of amateur astronomers and science nerds gathered at the Cosmic Campground to celebrate the sanctuary designation.

Next to the potluck table, Deborah Calkins and her son Michael wrapped red cellophane on a flashlight to help dim its intensity at night.

“We got our star wheels, we got our flashlights, I think we’re ready for sunset," she said.

Michael had just gotten a telescope for his 12th birthday. He’d wanted one ever since he saw the International Space Station fly over his house in Silver City, just an hour south of the campground.

“I like science and I'm interested in the stars," he said. 


Michael Calkins, 12, became interested in the stars when he saw the International Space Station fly over his home in Silver City, New Mexico.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe / KJZZ
Michael Calkins, 12, became interested in the stars when he saw the International Space Station fly over his home in Silver City, New Mexico.

Michael is lucky. Scientists estimate that 83 percent of the world’s population lives under light-polluted skies. Among other things, people need darkness to help maintain a healthy hormonal balance. Animals such as nocturnal birds and sea turtles need it to migrate, reproduce and find food.

As more scientists recognize the benefit of limiting illumination, more places are working to reduce light pollution. France passed a law in 2013 that requires businesses to shut off their lights late at night. In October the IDA recognized the first Dark Sky Park in South Korea, its first designation in Asia. The Grand Canyon is currently redesigning thousands of light fixtures within the park to create a more natural nighttime experience for its visitors.

After sunset the Cosmic Campground lies beneath a twinkling canopy of stars. Al Grauer, the astronomer, set up his telescope and invited fellow campers to take a peek at Saturn.

One woman likened the ringed planet to a UFO.

Nearby, Cindy Neely, a retired nurse, helped her three-year-old grandaugther Veda Werber onto a stool so she could peer into the family telescope. Werber excitedly counted Jupiter's moons out loud. 



For Grauer and his wife these are the moments that make their efforts worthwhile. They hope to spread the word about the Cosmic Campground to kids in urban areas via their website and a podcast called "Travelers in the Night."



“Astronomy has ignited kids’ imaginations and humans’ imagination from the beginning," Grauer said. "So what's the price of imagination? Where does the next generation of poets and scientists and engineers…come from?”

Copyright 2016 KJZZ/Fronteras Desk.