The year 2017 might only be a few weeks old, but it is already a banner one for our region’s astronomy sector.
Flagstaff, the home of Lowell Observatory and the US Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station, got two pieces of good news recently from an old law and a new program.
Let’s start with the almost 60-year-old law. In 1958, concerned that lighting from an ever-increasing population might affect the astronomy sector here, Flagstaff passed a ban on searchlights. It was the first step the city took to protect the city’s night skies, an ongoing effort that has been so successful that Flagstaff was named the world’s first International Dark Sky City in 2001.
Recent photographs from the National Park Service (NPS) show how phenomenally successful the dark sky efforts have been. As part of a study on the impacts of different types of lighting practices used by cities, the NPS used a special panoramic camera to take 360 degree images of communities like Flagstaff and Cheyenne, Wyoming to compare levels of light pollution.
What the NPS found out was that while Flagstaff and Cheyenne are similar in size, Flagstaff’s nighttime light emission are 14 times less than the Wyoming capital.
It is a compelling validation that the efforts begun by city leaders in the 1950’s continue to make a difference and ensure that astronomy is a viable sector here.
Meanwhile, Northern Arizona University (NAU) is beefing up its astronomy science offerings with the launching of its doctoral program in Astronomy and Planetary Science later this year.
This new PhD program will bolster the department’s reputation nationally. While NAU is known as a teaching institution in the field, a doctoral program will augment its role as a research facility.
NAU students in the program will get to work with faculty already experienced in studying small bodies in the solar system and the formation and evolution of other planetary systems. And NAU plans to hire tenure-track faculty members with experience in other specialties including exoplanets (planets that orbit a star outside of the solar system); astro-chemistry and astro-informatics.
So congratulations to the professional star (and planet) gazers among us and plaudits to the leaders of our region who have understood the astronomy sector’s importance for decades.