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The stars at night could use a little less competition

The stars at night may indeed be big and bright, but too much brightness here on earth makes them harder to see in the sky.

A West Texas astronomical observatory known for discovering the largest supermassive black hole is facing the threat of growing cities and increased oil and gas play lighting up the horizon.

McDonald Observatory celebrates 75 years of research and public outreach this year with a $30 million upgrade to its Hobby-Eberly Telescope.

“There will be discoveries coming out of this project we can’t even conceive of today,” said William Wren, special assistant to the observatory’s superintendent, noting the mountain of data will be publicly available.

But with West Texas cities booming – and drilling rigs lining the horizon of once desolate places – astronomers are worried about the impact of light on their research.

Even though it’s the farthest city, El Paso once had the biggest impact on the observatory.

“That was the brightest thing in our sky up until a few years ago,” Wren said. “Now the Permian Basin is lighting up our horizon.”

[…]

Oil and gas activity in the Wolfcamp-Spraberry play and Eagle Ford Shale now light up once dark areas of Texas. But Wren said the observatory isn’t pushing for nearby communities or oil and gas operations to “go dark” – just adopt better lightning practices.

“Light that is going up to the sky – it’s a waste. There’s no reason for it at all,” Wren said.

Good, safe outdoor lighting is possible, he said, pointing to Tucson, Arizona, and gas stations and convenience stores that have found success in switching to focused lighting or LEDs.

“Oftentimes it’s more cost efficient, reduces flare and increases visibility at night while keeping skies dark,” he said.

McDonald Observatory is also working with Pioneer Energy Services, a San Antonio company with a West Texas presence, to create a “dark-sky friendly” drilling rig.

See also this Observer story for more on the plight of West Texas’ not-so-dark-anymore skies. BeyondBones, the blog of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, recently provided five simple ways to cut down on light pollution. I’m a born-and-bred city boy, so I’m used to only seeing a few stars at night. I’ve never forgotten the time I traveled with the Trinity University baseball team to Kerrville for an afternoon-evening doubleheader, and being absolutely astounded at how full of stars the sky was 60 miles west of San Antonio. There’s getting to be fewer places in Texas where one can experience that, and it would be a shame for it to happen to the Observatory. The story mentioned the existence of a bill from the last Legislature that would have required seven counties to adopt ordinances that would help keep the Observatory in the dark, but there wasn’t enough information to go looking for it. I have no idea if such a bill might have a chance in 2015, but I’ll try to keep a lookout for it.

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