Monday, December 14, 2009

A River of Stars in a Dark Sky

In Japanese, the Milky Way is known as "天の川 (あまのがわ)", the River of Heaven, because it appears as a mighty river of stars flowing through the night sky. Every summer, people celebrate "Tanabata", a festival that recognizes this phenomena.

Long ago, there was a princess named Vega, who was the daughter of the king of heaven. Every day, she went to the banks of the Milky Way River to weave clothes for her father. But since she worked so hard, she was very lonely. One day, she met a cowboy tending his herd on the other side of the river. His name was Altair, and they fell in love and soon got married. But after they were married, the princess didn't weave clothes for her father, and the cowboy let his animals wander all over the sky. This made Vega's father angry, so he banished Altair to the other side of the river to separate the couple. Each of the pair could only sit on opposite sides of the river and look wistfully at each other. But on one night every year, on the seventh night of the seventh month, the pair of stars are allowed to meet one another, since a flock of magpies agreed to form a bridge over the river with their wings.

This phenomena is hard to see, because of pervasive light pollution in the developed world, the extent of which is apparent in maps of Earth's city lights. In most cities, light pollution is so severe that only the very brightest starts are faintly visible, while in truly dark areas, the light of the Milky Way can cast a visible shadow.

The International Dark Sky Association advocates against light pollution. There are a few locations in the eastern US designated as a dark sky preserve, including Cherry Springs State Park in northern Pennsylvania. The park has annual star parties that attract hundreds of astronomers, which began in the late 1990s when individual hobbyists noticed an isolated black patch on nighttime satellite photos.

Similar maps can be seen at the World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness. One of the largest patches of dark skies in the eastern US appears to be in eastern West Virginia in the Monongahela National Forest. This area is the heart of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which has the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope in a radio quiet zone at Green Bank, WV.

For nearer places, the DarkSky Finder is a Java application that works in Firefox. Near Louisville, the darkest sites are southwest of Leavenworth, IN, in the southeastern portion of the Hoosier National Forest and across the river in the corresponding section of Kentucky. There is a slightly darker area immediately west of Hazard, KY, around Buckhorn Lake (an area with a high incidence of communities with interesting names). There are some maps and brochures of the Daniel Boone National Forest for this area; the Redbird Crest Trail, especially the eastern side, is in the middle of this dark spot. The topo maps could useful as well; 17 is Buckhorn Lake; 44 shows the area around Thousandsticks west of Hyden; and the Redbird Crest Trail is on 11 and 28, centered on Creekville.

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