Image: Dan Duriscoe works at a special computer controlled camera.
John Locher  /  AP
Dan Duriscoe works at a special computer controlled camera used to photograph the night sky at Dantes View in Death Valley National Park, Calif.
By
updated 12/26/2008 12:58:03 PM ET 2008-12-26T17:58:03

High atop Dante's View, overlooking sheets of salt flats and ribbons of sand dunes, night watcher Dan Duriscoe shone a laser beam at the North Star and steadied his digital camera at the starry heavens.

Click. The sky looks dark.

Duriscoe panned the camera toward the light factory of Las Vegas, 85 miles away but peeking out like a white halo above the mountains in the eastern horizon.

Click. The sky is on fire.

"You can see the Luxor vertical beam," said Duriscoe, pointing to a time-exposure shot on his camera-connected laptop showing the Vegas Strip pyramid-shaped hotel's famous searchlight. "That's the brightest thing out there."

Acclaimed for its ink black skies, Death Valley, the hottest place in North America, also ranks among the nation's unspoiled stargazing spots. But the vista in recent years has grown blurry.

The glitzy neon glow from Las Vegas and its burgeoning bedroom communities is stealing stars from the park's eastern fringe. New research reveals light pollution from Vegas increased 61 percent between 2001 and 2007, making it appear brighter than the planet Venus on clear nights as seen from Dante's View.

Duriscoe, a soft-spoken, mustachioed physical scientist with the National Park Service, is part of a roving federal team of night owls whose job is to gaze up at the sky and monitor for light pollution in national parks.

"What is alarming to me is, what's going to happen three or four generations from now if this growth of outdoor lights continues?" he asked.

Amid such concerns, Death Valley, the largest national park in the Lower 48, has set an ambitious goal: It wants to be the first official dark-sky national park.

Missing the Milky Way
Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been enthralled by the night sky's romantic mystique. Early seafarers relied on stars to steer their ships. Farmers looked toward the night sky for clues to plant and harvest crops. Ancient cultures spun mythologies from staring at the cosmos.

Civilization is also the chief reason why the night sky is vanishing in many corners. As the world grows, so do the number of lamp posts that sprout up like trees in sprawling subdivisions. Pass by Anywhere, USA and chances are you will see lighted shopping strips, twinkling auto malls and flashy billboards.

Today, it's estimated about one fifth of the world's population and more than two-thirds in the United States cannot see the Milky Way from their backyards.

Further, studies have shown exposure to artificial lights can interrupt animals' biological clocks and disrupt ecosystems. Migratory birds have been known to be confused by blinding lights on skyscrapers and fly smack into them. Last year, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization listed the graveyard shift, where workers toil under artificial lights, as a probable carcinogen.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 (on this page) The International Dark-Sky Association, an Arizona-based nonprofit whose slogan is "Carpe Noctem," has noticed an increased awareness about the perils of light pollution, but acknowledged there's a limit to promoting dark skies.

"I don't think you can get Paris to turn off the Eiffel Tower or persuade Times Square to turn off all of its lights," said Pete Strasser, the association's managing director.

The same could probably be said for Las Vegas, the sparkly desert playground where neon signs blend into the natural landscape.

"It's part of the whole ambiance. It's the selling point of Las Vegas," said Barbara Ginoulias, director of comprehensive planning for Clark County, Nev., where Vegas is located. Still, she added, "We're certainly cognizant of light pollution and we try to address it in the best way."

Ginoulias' department oversees unincorporated parts of Clark County, which are required to shield outdoor lights or cast the light downward. Next month, the county commission will consider an ordinance that would set lighting standards on digital billboards on Interstate 15 that runs along the Vegas Strip.

As for the main drag, Las Vegas Boulevard, Ginoulias said signs are reviewed case-by-case. Newer signs tend to be less flashy or not have the glaring white background, she said.

Lights out
With no control over the Vegas glow, park rangers at Death Valley are looking inward to fix the light problem at home as they pursue their goal of becoming the first dark-sky national park.

To gain that distinction, the park must shield or change out two-thirds of its existing outdoor light fixtures. Death Valley has about 700 lights in its 3.3 million acres, including parking lot light poles, flood lights, fluorescent tubes and egress lights next to doors. Only about 200 lights meet the sky-friendly standard.

At the Furnace Creek Visitor Center located 190 feet below sea level, the pedestrian walkway leading to the front entrance is lined with overhead rows of fluorescent tubes under a canopy. From Dante's View at night, the visitor center appears as dancing white and blue dots.

"This is a really bright spot in the park," said Terry Baldino, chief of interpretation at Death Valley. "All the campgrounds have to share their night sky with the lights here. If we can reduce that, then we're going to improve their night stay."

The park has replaced some fixtures with tin can-shaped designs that focus light onto the ground instead of sideways or upward. Rangers are also debating whether to turn off outdoor lights in some cases.

"We're doing little by little," said Baldino.

So far, Utah's Gold Tier Natural Bridges National Monument and Pennsylvania's Cherry Springs State Park are the only two parks certified by the International Dark-Sky Association as dark-sky enclaves. This fall, the group gave a tentative OK to the Geauga Park District's Observatory Park 40 miles east of Cleveland for its work to preserve darkness over the observatory and nearby park land.

Despite Death Valley's lighting challenges, city dwellers from all over still flock to take in the view.

On a recent December evening, a naturalist couple from northern Los Angeles admired the star-studded sky from Zabriskie Point, a popular lookout just south of the visitor center.

"You don't see this in L.A.," said Karen Zimmerman, 49, who works at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. "You forget how many stars there are."

As Zimmerman spoke, a hazy glare could be seen from a distance.

Zimmerman's wife, Debra, 44, chimed in: "One of the things that concerns us is losing darkness. You just don't get darkness in Los Angeles. It's just nonexistent."

Watching the night skies
Back at Dante's View, a 5,475-foot panoramic viewpoint overlooking the glimmering valley floor, Duriscoe is working his second night taking sky brightness readings. The crescent moon, which formed a triangle with Jupiter and Venus earlier in the night, has dropped below the horizon.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 (on this page) The night is still — save for the occasional breeze and whirring noise of Duriscoe's camera mounted on a moving tripod that automatically takes 45 images, covering the entire sky. The images are then stitched together, and by subtracting the light by known stars, scientists create fisheye and panoramic maps of light invasion.

Duriscoe has been skygazing at national parks for a living since 1999 and made the first sky brightness comparisons two years later. A self-described desert rat, Duriscoe excitedly points to the Orion, Aquarius, Pisces and Aries constellations. The Milky Way, which arches across the night sky, bleeds into the Vegas light dome 30 degrees above the horizon. The glow from the greater Los Angeles region forms a long, narrow band.

Skywatchers can theoretically see some 6,000 stars in the blackest and pristine skies of Death Valley. With light pollution from Vegas, scientists estimate about 2,500 stars are visible from Dante's View.

Advances in technology have enabled people to see the cosmos like never before. Take the Hubble Space Telescope, which has beamed stunning images of exotic galaxies and distant supernovae to people's computers. But Duriscoe noted that these onscreen images are just not the same as being out under the sky.

Sitting on the ledge of Dante's View, his legs stretched out and his back toward Vegas, Duriscoe pondered the shrinking sky.

"This is the real universe," he said, taking in the celestial light show until clouds moved in, drawing a curtain on the stars for the night.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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