Dark skies are a precious resource for any budding astronomer. I would know. I grew up in Staten Island, New York. My little telescope and I fought the glare from one of the largest cities in the world for most of my formative years. In the end, I was never very good with an optical telescope. I’m still not, though that hasn’t stopped me from becoming an astronomer.

Family observing with DSBK. Dark skies also mean rambunctious kids, so we outfit them with glowing bracelets to keep track! Image credit: DSBK, Rachael Beaton


Although many research astronomers were inspired by the loveliness of the night sky to explore and make a career of this field, they hardly actually look up anymore. Unless they practice at it, they couldn’t tell one constellation from another or be able to say which planets are currently visible. At my university, that job falls to the graduate students.

I was a teaching assistant for my first two years of graduate school. My duties required me to get familiar with the night sky very quickly. Charlottesville, Virginia, is a much smaller town than my hometown, and we have decently dark skies for a town of this size. Most clear weeknights during the semester, some team of TAs will be outside the Astronomy Department using those amazing green laser pointers to teach the constellations to a group of undergraduates. Many of us just learned them ourselves at the beginning of the semester. I could listen to one of our professors talk for hours about the stories granted to the imaginary shapes in the sky. In one case, the Big Dipper represents a bear with a long tail. In another, the tail is not a tail, but three hunters chasing the bear around the night sky.

Just outside of Charlottesville are some of the darkest skies on the East Coast. Albemarle County actually has lighting ordinances to preserve the beautiful night skies that Thomas Jefferson loved so much when he planned for an astronomical observatory at the University of Virginia. However, the sky itself cannot teach astronomy or point out the wonders that just a small telescope can reveal. Wondering children may look up and ask questions on their own, but other people are needed to help them understand just what it all means.

For this reason, an outreach club called “Dark Skies, Bright Kids” was formed by professor Kelsey Johnson here at UVa. The children of Albemarle County have a precious resource in these dark skies, but not all of them have been given the opportunity to understand it all. And so, every semester, Dr. Johnson and a host of volunteers from the department pick a school in the county that could use a little boost in math and sciences. Many of these are small schools in rural, economically disadvantaged areas. We hold a weekly astronomy club with fifteen to twenty students from grades three to five, doing lots of hands-on, interactive activities relating to astronomy. We want to show kids that science is fun and accessible, and what is more fun than rockets, dry ice, liquid nitrogen, designing your own constellations, or eating a “comet” made of ice cream?

Of course, the daytime science activities are paired with at least one family observing night each semester. This is when we bring out the “big guns.” Students and families look through our department-owned and personal telescopes while we link the objects that they are seeing with the activities from the club. Some of the comments made at the telescope are priceless. One night, we were showing Mars through a telescope to two of our girls. My friend Gail goes on to explain that if someone were on Mars looking at us, they would see a tiny blue dot, just as we see a red dot. One girl exclaims, “How do YOU know that?!” The second girl replies, “She is an astronomy person!” They had kind of hoped that Gail had been on Mars and seen it for herself. Hopefully, one of the many aspiring astronauts in our clubs will indeed make it to Mars and take a picture for us.

The night sky is a resource not only to be preserved, but also to be shared with the next generation. Most of these children will not grow up to be professional astronomers. No matter what their passion, I hope that they will keep a special place in their heart for astronomy and for science in general. Professional scientists need the support of the tax-paying public to continue our explorations into the depth of the universe and our own reality. We need those dark skies, too, and “radio quiet” skies for radio astronomers as well. Maybe I will never be good with an optical telescope, but I sure do love radio astronomy. And I will always love gazing at the night sky… until I trip over my own feet while looking up. Again.


Nicole Gugliucci, is a graduate student at the University of Virginia, pursuing a Ph.D. in astronomy. She works with the Precision Array to Probe the Epoch of Reionization, a new low frequency radio telescope designed specifically for detecting the faint signal of hydrogen in the very young universe. Her thesis focuses on the instrument itself and the effects that our Earth’s own atmosphere will have on such sensitive observations. She does astronomy outreach whenever she can, through “Dark Skies, Bright Kids”, her contributions to the Discovery News Space blog, or her personal blog, One Astronomer’s Noise.


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