The heavens is disappearing

The Milky Way's galactic center above the Paranal Observatory in Chile.
The Milky Way’s galactic center above the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Photo: The European Southern Obesrvatory

I spent most of my childhood in a valley in my hometown Haugesund. My universe stretched to the elementary school I went to about three km away, but I didn’t know much about the outside world.

One of my strongest memories is from when I as a ten year old was standing on a hill, and surrounded by darkness I was looking up at the stars. I have been fascinated by the night sky ever since, and I still have many unanswered questions. Is there anyone or anything out there? It may not be the answer many people want, but the truth is that we are pretty much alone. That could change because I believe there is life elsewhere, but very far away. It won’t happen for centuries, possibly milennia, because we know we are alone in our solar system. Anything beyond that is for future generations to explore. I wish I could be around for that. I’d like to see some of the vast, mysterious ocean of space. Speculating about this has been a fun pastime since I started looking up 38 years ago, and even though I still don’t have a telescope, my own night vision stil gives me immense pleasure.

However, this is a pleasure that a shrinking number of us get to take part in. NASA published the article The Fading Milky Way fifteen years ago. The galaxy we are a part of is not disapeearing, but our ability to observe it has been greatly reduced.

A new study has been published in Science Advances which shows that more than 80 percent of the world and 99 percent of the population in the USA and Europe are experiencing light polution, which means that we have produced so much artificial light that we can’t see the stars. This is the reason 60 percent of Europeans and 80 percent of Americans can’t observe the Milky Way.

This didn’t just happen. It’s been a known problem in the cities for a long time, but the problem is getting bigger. This is a consequence of LED lights and a 24 hour lifestyle. There’s been a focus on Earth Hour in recent years, a symbolic event where people all over the world are encouraged to turn the lights off in their houses for an hour. I think many turn the lights off in rooms they don’t use at the moment, but it  seems like a novel idea to turn the lights off for more than an hour, outside as well. Turning the lights off helps the planet, and it would be tragic if we destroyed our home completely, but I also think it would be sad if we lost the connection to the galaxy we are a part of.

The constellations fascinated our ancestors enough that they saw images on the sky. Different cultures saw different things, so there were different names for the constellations in Northern Europe, ancient Greece, China, Egypt and the Americas. If we had given names to the constellations today some of the names would probably be smartphone, plane and skateboard. The stars have inspired philosophers, scientists, writers and before that oral storytellers. It seems like a huge paradox when our technological advances have allowed us to see things that were hidden to all previous generations, but also concealed what was visible to people before we had artificial light.

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