The sparkling band of the Milky Way arcs overhead, glowing with billions of stars. It’s a crisp fall night, and the sky is clear of clouds. Constellations shine bright. There’s Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, bears of cosmos. And there’s the planet Mars, a pink pinprick on a dark tapestry.
In Maine, where a starry night sky is a common sight, it’s easy to take the spectacular scene for granted. But all you have to do is head to Bangor or Portland to see the stars fade and realize that the beauty of a dark night sky is easily destroyed by light pollution.
That’s why thousands of people flock to Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor each year to celebrate the splendor of the stars at the annual Acadia Night Sky Festival, a four-day event filled with star parties, moonlight paddles, virtual space tours, special exhibits and presentations by astronomers from around the world.
The eighth Acadia Night Sky Festival will run Thursday, Sept. 22, through Sunday, Sept. 25, with a full schedule of events planned throughout Mount Desert Island.
“We have new speakers every year to keep the festival fresh and growing,” Alf Anderson of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce said.
The keynote speaker for this year’s festival is Guy Consolmagno, who in 2015 was named director of the Vatican Observatory by Pope Francis. A brother in the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus, Consolmagno has been working since 1993 as an astronomer and meteorite specialist at the Vatican Observatory, located in the Papal summer gardens outside Rome.
“We’re really excited to have him come to town,” said Anderson, who is on the festival planning committee that also includes representatives from Acadia National Park, the Abbe Museum, Friends of Acadia, The Jackson Laboratory and Mount Desert Island High School.
In recent years, the festival has attracted between 3,500 and 4,000 visitors to Mount Desert Island, Anderson said. And last year, the Saturday star party atop Cadillac Mountain, the festival’s most popular event, drew roughly 1,500 stargazers to the summit of the mountain.
Kicking off the popular star party this year, Chad Moore, founder of the National Park Service’s Dark Skies Team, will be giving a presentation from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, at MDI High School. The presentation, titled “A Starry Endowment,” will center on how people can help preserve the starry sky for future generations.
“It’s not just that you can’t see stars in the backyard in the city; we’re losing it in the parks as well,” Moore said in a recent phone interview from his home in California.
Moore was a park ranger at Pinnacles National Park in California in 1999, when he noticed light pollution affecting his view of the night sky in the park.
“I was concerned and started asking around to my fellow park rangers about what to do about this and how to measure it, and basically, they either said, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I don’t know, and I’ve been worried about the same thing,’” Moore said.
In response, Moore formed the National Park Service Dark Skies Team to measure light pollution in national parks throughout the country and raise public awareness about light pollution and ways to combat it.
Light pollution not only masks the beauty of the starry night sky; it also contributes to energy waste, disrupts many ecological processes, especially for nocturnal animals, and can cause adverse human health effects, according to a 2010 report prepared by the Hancock County Planning Commission and Maine State Planning Office. Medical research has shown that excessive light on the human body may increase incidents of headaches, fatigue, stress and anxiety.
“What we’re dealing with is a transboundary issue that is like air pollution but unlike air pollution, because there are few laws to govern it,” Moore said.
In 1991, Maine became the second state to adopt some form of outdoor lighting regulations, but like most states with these regulations, Maine’s legislation only covers state-funded lighting. This leaves it up to individual towns to create their own “dark sky friendly” ordinances.
“We realized that communicating this issue with the public and having a public component to it was going to be essential to its protection,” Moore said. “So we started directing some of our efforts to sharing the night sky, training park rangers on how to use telescopes and creating night sky celebrations.”
The first national park night sky festival was held in 2005 at Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah. Since then star festivals at parks and other outdoor locations have increased in number and popularity throughout the United States.
“It’s extremely satisfying for me to have kicked off this idea of dark sky festivals and then see it embraced by not only the [National] Park Service but the friends groups and the community and having them make it their own,” Moore said.
Moore visited Acadia National Park for the first time to measure the park’s light pollution in 2003, at the bequest of former Acadia superintendent Sheridan Steele.
“What we found was one of the darkest locations on the eastern seaboard,” Moore said of Acadia National Park.
On a clear night in Acadia, visitors can see the band of the Milky Way with the naked eye, and on occasion they’ll catch a colorful show of the Northern Lights.
Since 2003, Moore has returned to Acadia several times to measure light pollution.
“I’ve spent many a night on top of Cadillac Mountain, collecting data or waiting for it to be clear or ironically cursing the Northern Lights, which are beautiful but totally mess up the data,” Moore said.
In 2008, Acadia National Park launched the “Night Sky Initiative” in partnership with the Island Astronomy Institute and Friends of Acadia to measure, promote and protect the quality of the night sky above the park and surrounding communities. The annual Acadia Night Sky Festival, which debuted the following year, is a part of that initiative.
Also during that time, the town of Bar Harbor adopted an ordinance regulating outdoor lighting on all new construction in town. This ordinance was voted in by a landslide popular vote, demonstrating the support and enthusiasm of the community to protect the island’s dark skies and prevent further light pollution.
“I think what I’ve learned from this career I’ve had in light pollution is that my connection with the night is not an anachronistic thing,” Moore said. “This isn’t me as a scientist trying to change people’s minds or sway somebody’s opinion about the beauty of the night sky. … I’m not an advocate, really. I guess I was in the beginning. But at this point, the night sky doesn’t need an advocate. We just need to understand how to fix this problem.”
For information on the Acadia Night Sky Festival, including a full schedule of events, visit acadianightskyfestival.com.