World-class observatories like Mount Wilson near Los Angeles and Palomar north of San Diego are cramped by the intrusion of urban light to once unspoiled night skies.
Facing the same problem in the 1970s, scientists at Kitt Peak National Observatory south of Tucson persuaded that city and others in Arizona to pass lighting ordinances.
Now, the McDonald Observatory in remote West Texas — home to the largest telescope in North America — is suddenly dealing with unwanted light. The Texas oil and gas boom is responsible. Cutting edge research could be at risk. But the observatory is trying to convince industry to retool using a relatively simple solution.
The 82-inch Otto Struve telescope is an optical telescope that draws researchers from around the world.
“There’s a certain group of us hard core visual astronomers just wanna look through an eyepiece, don’t care about cameras, photographs, just wanna see it,” said amateur researcher Jim Fowler of Ft. Davis. “This scope is the Holy Grail.”
But since 2010, the exponential growth of oil and gas in the Permian Basin — a 24/7 complex of wells and rigs across Texas and New Mexico — has generated tapestries of light reflecting off the sky.
Unchecked, the growing gleam could compromise leading research into dark energy that McDonald Observatory is famous for. Dark energy is the undefined, unknown power behind the expansion of the universe.
But there’s a way out, said Bill Wren of the observatory. First you talk to players in the oil patch.
“It’s not on their radar. I mean, I wouldn’t call it ignorance,” he said. “There’s no blip on the screen for them to ignore. It’s not an issue they’ve even heard of before.”
So Wren pitches safety, if not altruism. It’s all about reorienting the way oil and gas companies light their derricks and wells.
“If you think about where the light goes when it leaves the floodlight, that [if] aimed sideways, half the light goes up into the sky,” he said.
So if they aim the floodlight down they can reclaim that wasted uplight, get twice as much light on their worksite and keep the skies darker overhead.
In 2011, the Texas legislature ordered seven counties around the observatory to mitigate light pollution.
Near Ft. Davis, on a cliff beside a cluster of domes and telescopes, astronomer Stephen Odawhan said the story of Mount Wilson Observatory north of Los Angeles speaks volumes.
“That’s where in fact the expansion of the universe was discovered,” Odawhan said. “And it’s hardly used at all for optical astronomy anymore because Los Angeles is just so bright. And that’s sort of the same way Mt. Palomar is going, at the 200-inch telescope that for years and years was the largest telescope in the world. It’s basically becoming an infrared telescope now because the optical sky is just becoming too, too bright to do the optical work.”
Some in the energy industry appear to at least be listening.
Stacy Locke is the CEO of Pioneer Energy Services of San Antonio. Prompted by McDonald Observatory, Locke began checking the lights his workers use.
“One of the drillers had put a rag up to block the lighting because it was shining in his eyes,” Locke said. “He couldn’t see his instrument panels.”
So Locke ordered an experiment. He put directional shade panels on the lights on one of his rigs.
“We’ll end up with better lighting really than we would with the lighting that we had because it went to 360 degrees. So with the shading you can focus the light downward.”
Doing the right thing doesn’t come without a cost. Locke runs 18 rigs in the Permian Basin. Those rigs move like nomads every two to four weeks in search of new oil and gas.
Just adding panels costs up to $15,000 for each rig. Locke says the energy sector wants to do right by the environment.
But it currently stands alone in an industry largely unaware about its potential effect on astronomy and science.
Wren said something beyond scientific research is at stake.
“I think the consequences for losing touch with the starry sky are beyond what we can imagine at this point in time. It’s kinda cliche for me, but what if Van Gogh were alive today? Would he be inspired to paint “Starry Night” again? I mean, could he even see the Milky Way from Saint Rémy in France? And the answer is no he couldn’t. It’s light polluted,” Wren said.
By 2015, McDonald Observatory will complete a major upgrade to its historic Hobby-Eberle telescope. If a solution to bright skies is found, the upgrade will allow three-dimensional glimpses into the way the universe was 11 billion years ago, adding to our understanding of the origins of life.
The challenge now is to get major players in the oil patch to care.