ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — The cosmos did not disappoint Saturday night as at least 100 people, perhaps more, gathered atop Cadillac Mountain to join astronomers to peek through high-powered telescopes and binoculars and enjoy the park’s night sky.
The event was part of the weekend-long “Acadia Night Sky Festival,” an annual series of events meant to promote the protection of the Down East region’s clear night sky.
Park rangers and astronomers on Saturday gave short lessons to attendees and about a dozen telescopes were positioned in the summit parking lot. Professional stargazers used high-frequency green lasers to home in on points of interest in the night sky. The looked like they were wielding lightsabers.
“That’s the Great Hercules Cluster,” said Dwight M. Lanpher as people peered through his huge telescope. The cluster of about 200 galaxies was discovered by Edmond Halley, for whom Halley’s Comet is named. “There’s a half-million stars up there,” Lanpher said.
Keegan McKin, a 17-year-old senior at Mount Desert Island High School, peered through the eyepiece and gasped at the number of stars 500 million light years away. “I can’t even fathom that,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
McKin had come to Cadillac to stargaze, he said, but he didn’t know there would be so many others up there doing the same.
“Me and my friends were coming up to look at the stars anyway,” he said. “We had no idea about this huge telescope festival.”
People in many parts of the country, especially the urban cores, don’t see the stars as clearly as residents in much of Maine because of light pollution caused by the constant presence of man-made luminescence. Visitors to the park are treated to the constellations and the Milky Way in a way they may never see at home.
The National Park Services in 2006 launched the “Night Sky Initiative,” to measure, promote and protect the natural lightscapes of the parks. John Kelly, Acadia’s park planner, said Acadia is the only national park in the northeast that provides natural darkness similar to the experience in the more remote parks west of the Mississippi River.
The Bortle Scale is used to rank night sky quality. It ranks ares from Class 1 to Class 9. The lower class indicates pristine conditions, and Class 9 is for highly degraded areas, where fewer stars than the number on the American flag are visible.
In Acadia, there is moderate light pollution from the villages on Mount Desert Island, Ellsworth, Bangor and even Camden, Kelly said. Acadia comes in at Class 3 or 4, which may be the best night sky some will ever see.
“While we don’t have a pristine sky, we have among the best dark skies east of the Mississippi,” he said. “It’s not the best on the East Coast, though. I’d guess that’s probably in Aroostook County.”
Three of the four towns on Mount Desert Island have joined the park in working to protect the night sky. Bar Harbor, Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor have enacted “night sky” ordinances, with rules for developers aimed at reducing the amount of light pollution.
Acadia National Park also works with local businesses to cut down on the amount of light sent shooting skyward.
“Jackson Lab is a great example,” Kelly said. “It’s the largest institution on the island and it’s voluntarily worked with the park to use full cutoff fixtures. It looks better and it works better.”
Melissa Walls, event coordinator for the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce — a partner in the Night Sky Festival — said the awesome views of the stars are a large part of the region’s beauty, even if not all visitors are expecting it when they plan their visit.
“Our top markets, where a lot of people come from, are Philadelphia, Boston and New York,” she said. “People don’t see the stars there. I don’t know if it’s something they’re thinking of when they book their vacation, but it’s definitely something they notice when they get here.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.