Vancouver’s astronomers move outwards to “no light zones”


Around the 18th century, possibly even earlier, people would get prizes for finding comets in the sky,” Jason Rickerby retells. To find that same enthusiasm in present day Vancouver, people have to travel far out to hubs where little to no city-light touches. The hubs are called “no light zones” and they are where groups of Vancouverites gather to take a look at the night sky above.

As the city’s light pollutes our vision of the stars, amateur astronomers have been moving incrementally away from the city and gathering in these no light zones. Many of the facilities were built in locations outside of the GVRD where skies were clear. “The [facilities] have all developed but the   views of the sky aren't as good as they were,” Rickerby explains. Rickerby is the President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC).

Yet, Rickerby stresses that the light pollution situation is so bad in most cities that there is little reason to expect to see stars at night. The fact that Vancouver often has cloudy skies is also a detriment. “In terms of buying a telescope, I'm not sure how many people stop to consider our weather. [...] Telescope owners will find this a fairly challenging place. It rains most of the time, and when there are clear skies in August it takes longer for night to come.”

No Fix in Sight

The situation in Vancouver is far past being repairable. Rickerby provides an example of how, during the Olympics, he was approached by a 24 Hours News representative looking for a story angle on how the spotlights around the Olympics affected astronomers, “but the Vancouver sky is hard to see [on a regular basis]. Two weeks of spotlights isn't going to change anything.”

As Vancouverites are becoming more environmentally conscious though, some improvement is being made. To compensate for the light pollution, the RASC society educates the public on astronomy by guiding them far from the city to the no light zone hubs where it’s easier view space without infringement of city light. “Things may be improving in Vancouver, our job is just to increase awareness,” Rickerby notes.

A Visit to the No Light Zone: Aldergrove Lake

I wish those lights weren’t pointed directly at us,” Roy Teo, an astronomy guide for Metro Vancouver, laments about the distant spotlights in the park. It’s an hour-long drive to a park reservation in the middle of Langley. Here lies a nearby no light zone and even though the park is gated from the public, human-made lights still manage to reach from the horizons.

The area is still almost a no light zone and, as Teo moves atop a hill, a bespangled display of the winter sky awaits. While people in earlier centuries would get prizes for finding comets, “Charles Messier wanted to quickly subtract any celestial objects that weren’t comets. So whatever wasn’t moving would be identified as not a comet and Messier eventually categorized 100 or so of these objects,” Teo says. Apparently, the clarity of the Vancouver night sky in this no light zone is similar to the one Messier looked at. “If you look closely at the sky you should be able to identify almost all 100 of [the objects].”

Although most people have seen starry skies on camping trips and could locate common constellations such as “The Big Dipper” and “Orion’s Belt”, Teo has come prepared with a few star maps and a database of information on the cosmos. He begins with a story that relates multiple constellations together before pointing out their specific stars. With a laser he points at the constellations he’s referring to in his story. Orion, armed with his club, shields himself from the attacking bull as he tries to make his way over towards the seven sisters that he’s in love with. As the story ends, Teo remarks, “It’s amazing how after these exercises, when you look up at the sky, that’s all you see. It’s like, ‘Oh there’s Orion fighting the bull again.’” True enough, the constellations become as recognizable as landmarks. In this natural abyss where only the light of the sky predominates: Pleiades, Canis Major, and Leo replace the roles of Canada Place, Grouse Mountain, or Lion’s gate. Like the Egyptians who would read the night sky for travelling directions, the same map has been recreated.

The Community Now

In general as the urban landscape decreases, one becomes more aware of the night sky,” Rickerby notes. It's true, returning to downtown Vancouver from Aldergrove park, Roy Teo remarks how “there's little left to look at in the sky.”

Efforts for awareness are still being made. Capilano University provides only two courses in astronomy, but the University of Victoria has a great program for students. SFU has also expanded their hiring of professionals in astronomy and is increasing the amount of astronomy-related courses.  The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada currently has increased its membership to 300 members.

Saturday, April 24th is International Astronomy Day. The RASC will be holding an event at the H.R. MacMillan Planetarium. At 3 pm Dr. Ray Villard, who has received several NASA service awards for his contribution to the Hubble telescope project, will speak on the “last Hubble Telescope servicing mission in May 2009, the new science observations since then, and preview new upcoming HST [Hubble's Successor Telescope]  discoveries and talk about Hubble's Successor Telescope” according to the RASC. It is a great opportunity for students to educate themselves on astronomy.

// Alamir Novin

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com