Having lived for several years in the Inland Northwest, I can say that one of the many natural beauties of the area is the night sky. On a clear night, the number of bright stars is truly phenomenal. Cap the fire, let your eyes adjust and you might even be able to spot shooting stars, faint galaxies, and even a bright planet.
Unfortunately, for the growing number of us who live in urban environments, these opportunities are limited. The George Conservancy, outside my home Houston, TX, has to be situated almost 50 miles away from our glowing metropolis to get a clearer look at our universe. Light pollution is growing problem, and scientists now are trying to understand its effects on more than just our ability to recognize constellations, but our health, biodiversity, and life quality. What’s amazing is that much of the problem comes from poor street lamp design.
Recently, two new mobile applications have come out to harness the power of citizen science to monitor light pollution and help scientists analyze its effects.
Loss of the Night App
The Loss of the Night App for Android devices challenges citizen scientists to identify as many stars as they can. The app couldn’t be easier to use, and you can even learn different constellations along the way. All of your data is sent to a map database of another light pollution citizen science project called the Globe at Night, which has several years worth of data already collected. You can download their app to view a real time map of light pollution (pretty handy for amateur astronomers). This large scale mapping of data helps researchers understand light pollution in a spatial context to analyze trends and to better determine how to control it.
Dark Sky Meter
Apple fans, you aren’t being left out. In fact, the Dark Sky Meter has been specifically designed to utilize the specifications of the iPhone’s camera. Available free in the iTunes Store, (for iPhone 4S and 5 only) the Dark Sky Meter uses your phones camera to actually take a measure of ‘skglow’, and it is as easy as taking a picture with your phone. Similarly, this app contributes to a growing map of the night sky visibility. Additional features of this app include weather reports for predicting clear nights, moon phase, and sunset, so you can get the best readings.
Both of these apps demonstrate how everyday people can contribute to real science to help address real problems all with a click of a button.
Light pollution, ironically, might suffer from an out of sight, out of mind predicament. With rapid, global urbanization, not enough is known of the potential effects of a brighter nightscape. For example, it is unclear how ecosystems that have evolved to certain circadian rhythms will respond to a relatively sharp increase in artificial light. Both The Loss of the Night app and the Dark Sky Meter are simple citizen science tools that practically anyone can use. The apps are free. The cause is good. So start counting stars and snapping pictures of the night sky to take part in citizen science tonight!