Environmental Issues and Astronomy: An Introductory Resource Guide

by Andrew Fraknoi
(Foothill College & the Astronomical Society of the Pacific)
[Version 1.1; Jan. 2000]

© 2000 by Andrew Fraknoi. The right to reproduce for any non-profit educational purpose is hereby granted. For any other use, contact the author at: fraknoiandrew {at} fhda.edu.

Table of Contents

1. Light Pollution
2. Observatory Sites and the Environment
3. Radio Interference
4. Preventing the Contamination of Earth or Other Worlds

Like every other human endeavor, the exploration of the universe takes place in the context of our terrestrial environment. As human activity changes that environment, issues are raised for both astronomers and those who enjoy the fruits of their research. In this resource list, we examine four areas where the environment and the needs of astronomers meet: the problems caused by the uncontrolled growth of city lights; the issue of reconciling the need of new observatory sites with the safeguarding of endangered species; the difficulty of protecting the frequencies (channels) needed for radio astronomy from the encroachment of cellular phones and other forms of radio communication on Earth; and the thorny problem of how we protect other planets from Earth micro-organisms and the Earth from possible extra-terrestrial microbes. Additions to this list are most welcome.

1. Light Pollution

Few places on Earth remain truly dark as human civilization and its electric lights spread across the globe. For astronomers, trying to collect the faint light of distant objects, this "light pollution" has become a serious problem. Some lights are worse than others in terms of the number of colors (wavelengths) they block from celestial objects. The sources below describe the attempts to balance the needs of cities with the requirements of observatories, and the work astronomers are doing to educate political leaders and the public about this issue.

Readings

Crawford, D. & Hunter, T. "The Battle Against Light Pollution" in Sky & Telescope, July 1990, p. 23. A fine review of the current status of problems and solution.

Crawford, D. & Robinson, W. Light Pollution: Problems and Solutions. 1990, Astronomical Society of the Pacific. A set of 20 slides and a 24-page information booklet to help teach and inform about the issues.

Davidson, K. "Hype in Space: Billboards and Other Threats to the Dark" in Mercury, May/June 1993, p. 80.

Hendry, A. "Light Pollution: A Status Report" in Sky & Telescope, June 1984, p. 504.

Hunter, T. & Goff, B. "Shielding the Night Sky" in Astronomy, Sep. 1988, p. 47.

Hunter, T. & Crawford, D. "A Timetable for Better Lighting" in Sky & Telescope, Mar. 1995, p. 96. Progress report on quest for better public lighting in the Northeast.

Kosai, H., et al. "Night Sky Brightness Over Japan" in Sky & Telescope, Nov. 1992, p. 564.

Levy, D. "Ten Dark-Sky Years" in Sky & Telescope, Sep. 1998, p. 32. On the work of the International Dark-Sky Association.

Mood, J. & S. "Palomar and the Politics of Light Pollution" in Astronomy, Nov. 1985, p. 6.

O'Meara, S. "Dark Nights are Safe Nights" in Sky & Telescope, Sep. 1998, p. 84. On ways you can help safeguard the night in your community.

Sperling, N. "Light Pollution: A Challenge for Astronomers" in Mercury, Sep/Oct. 1986, p. 144.

Sullivan, W. "Our Endangered Night Skies" in Sky & Telescope, May 1984, p. 412. On how the pollution in light and radio waves can be detected from space.

Taubes, G. "Twinkle, Twinkle, Great Big Bauble" in Discover, Nov. 1987, p. 60. On the ring of light the French had proposed putting into space.

Web Sites

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2. Observatory Sites and the Environment

While many new observatories must now file an environmental impact statement, the most publicized clash between astronomers and environmentalist was over a site in Arizona called Mount Graham, where there was some concerned over an endangered species of squirrel.

Readings

Waldrop, M. "The Long, Sad Saga of Mount Graham" in Science, 22 June 1990, vol. 248, p. 1479. The story of how a new site for telescopes in Arizona pits astronomers and environmentalists against each other.

Travis, J. "Scopes and Squirrels Return to Court" in Science, 2 Sep. 1994, vol. 265, p. 1356. A sequel to the above. (Further updates can be found on the web sites below.)

Muro, M. "Array Plans Blocked by Indian Ritual Site" in Science, 10 Sep. 1999, vol. 285, p. 1650. How proximity to a native American ritual sweat hut is endangering plans for an array of gamma-ray telescopes. (Update in Science, 24 Dec. 1999, vol. 286, p. 2433.)

Web Sites

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3. Radio Interference

Radio astronomer search for "faint" radio static from cosmic objects. Increasingly, the signals they are searching for are lost in the "din" of terrestrial radio communications, particularly the requirements of cellular phones and other modern communications using satellites. Major political battles loom as the demands of business clash with the need to protect certain important channels for radio astronomy.

Readings

Carpenter, S. "Lost Space: Rising Din Threatens Radio Astronomy" in Science News, Sep. 11, 1999, vol. 156, p. 168. Good summary of current situation.

Cohen, J. "Radio Pollution: The Invisible Threat to Radio Astronomy" in Astronomy & Geophysics (a journal of the Royal Astronomical Society), Dec. 1999, vol. 40, issue 6, p. 8. Good review from a European perspective.

Cohen, N. & Clegg, A. "What Should We Do about Radio Interference?" in Mercury, Sep/Oct. 1995, p. 10. A point-counterpoint discussion.

Feder, T. "Europe's Radio Astronomers Score in Spectrum Battle" in Physics Today, Oct. 1998, p. 75. Brief news item about Iridium satellites.

Jackson, C. "The Allocation of the Radio Spectrum" in Scientific American, Feb. 1980. Saving the "channels" radio astronomers need from being used for terrestrial purposes.

Pankonin, V. "Protecting Radio Windows for Astronomy" in Sky & Telescope, Apr. 1981, p. 308.

Roth, J. "Will the Sun Set on Radio Astronomy?" in Sky & Telescope, Apr. 1997, p. 40. Explains the "pollution" of the radio spectrum by human activities.

"Cell Phones Threaten Radio Telescope" in Science, vol. 278, p. 1569 (28 Nov. 1997). Short news article on a problem in India.

Web Sites

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4. Preventing the Contamination of Earth or Other Worlds

As our robot probes travel to the other bodies in our solar system, and even begin to return samples of these other worlds to Earth, we must confront the issue of planetary contamination. How do we keep our microbes from hitching a ride to other worlds, and how do we prevent any possible microbes from Mars or Europa (for example) from returning to Earth and (possibly) harming life on our planet?

Readings

Hargrove, E., ed. Beyond Spaceship Earth: Environmental Ethics and the Solar System. 1886, Sierra Club Books. Essays on exploiting or preserving planets, on implications of space exploration, on pollution in space, etc.

Miller, R. "The Natural Universe" in Mercury, Jan/Feb. 1997, p. 27. An environmental reporter muses on the effects the discovery of life on Mars would have on our concerns for the environment.

Miller, R. "To Preserve and Protect" in Mercury, Mar/Apr. 1999, p. 33. Proposes an astro-environmental view for space exploration.

Pendick, D. "The Real Men in Black" in Astronomy, July 1999, p. 36. Profile of John Rummel, NASA's Planetary Protection Officer, whose task it is to see that micro-organisms from other worlds don't contaminate the Earth.

Race, M. & Rummel, J. "Bring 'em Back Alive (or at Least Carefully)" in Ad Astra (the journal of the National Space Society), Jan/Feb. 1999, p. 37. [This article is also available on line; see below.]

Sagan, C., et al. "Planetary Protection" in The Planetary Report (the magazine of the Planetary Society), Jul/Aug. 1994, p. 3. Special issue devoted to the topic.

Web Sites

NOTE: I would like to thank Margaret Race and David Finley for their assistance with this bibliography.

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