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When Astronomy Made a Town Go Dark

Most TV personalities are asked to turn lights on -- usually Christmas tree lights in city centers -- so you can imagine my surprise when I was asked to turn the lights of an entire British town off!
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Most TV personalities are asked to turn lights on -- usually Christmas tree lights in city centers -- so you can imagine my surprise when I was asked to turn the lights of an entire British town

I jumped at the chance, but it wasn't any usual request; it was planned as part of the second season of BBC Stargazing LIVE.

Light pollution is a real plague on astronomy. This is one of the reasons why professional observatories are found in rather obscure locations on the top of mountains.

For amateur astronomers, the growing trend of lighting buildings, roads and tourist attractions is causing a big problem and anyone living in urban areas are left with a long commute to a dark site.

OPINION: Light Pollution: Time to Turn On the Night?

So, for Stargazing LIVE, the plan was to identify a moderate-sized town, campaign and turn off every single light from street light to security light; from advertising light to shop light.

All of this was planned to happen LIVE on TV -- well, except the campaigning bit which took weeks.

A town was identified called Dulverton in Somerset inside Exmoor National Park. The town is home to about 1,600 people with around 700 streetlights, plus shops and pubs/restaurants -- convincing everyone to participate was a big ask.

A team from the BBC spent a few weeks posting leaflets through letter boxes and meeting with representatives from businesses and councils. All this work culminated in filming of a short video of the preparation. I have to say I was inspired by the positivity.

NEWS: Light Pollution Blankets Even the Brightest Stars

We tried to make a film that would give a little jeopardy, to build anticipation of "will it work, won't it work?" but it was impossible to find anyone who wasn't 100 percent behind it. Even the shops had made displays celebrating the night sky and the forthcoming "Big Switch Off."

The night came on Episode 3 of Stargazing LIVE and I traveled over 200 miles from Jodrell Bank (in Cheshire) where the main show was filmed.

On arrival, the weather was miserable, unlike the previous two nights of clear skies enjoyed at Jodrell. Rain and low cloud was covering the town but despite this, the Dulvertonians had turned up in their hundreds and the atmosphere was electric. We even had some local astronomers turn up who setup their equipment in the rain. Now that's dedication.

As the show progressed with lots of suspense, the moment arrived. I counted down with the crowd, the church bells rang to signal the turn off to the town and within 10 seconds, the whole town was plunged into darkness. And I mean darkness. It was the most incredible experience to be in the center of a bustling town when it turned into the darkness you expect of the countryside.

ANALYSIS: Light Pollution: A Growing Problem for Wildlife

Unfortunately it was still cloudy and drizzling, so the astronomical wonders had to wait, but even with the cloud, the sky suddenly took center-stage. Usually it lurks up their, hidden behind the lights, so turning the lights off brought it to life. I can only imagine what the experience would have been like if the skies were clear. In fact, the hairs on the back of my neck tingle at the thought.

What an amazing achievement, after weeks of preparing we had done it, an entire town had switched all its lights off, live on national TV. Certainly, it was a shame the sky didn't play ball but even so, it shows that it is possible. Even if it ended up as a symbolic gesture, the event opened the eyes of four million people across the UK to the serious problem of light pollution.

See what happened during the 2011 Stargazing LIVE (it's behind you Mark!)