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Environmental Issues and Astronomy: An Introductory Resource Guide

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by Andrew Fraknoi
(Foothill College & the Astronomical Society of the Pacific)
[Version 1.1; Jan. 2000]

© 2000 by Andrew Fraknoi. The right to reproduce for any non-profit educational purpose is hereby granted. For any other use, contact the author at: fraknoiandrew {at}

Table of Contents

1. Light Pollution
2. Observatory Sites and the Environment
3. Radio Interference
4. Preventing the Contamination of Earth or Other Worlds

Like every other human endeavor, the exploration of the universe takes place in the context of our terrestrial environment. As human activity changes that environment, issues are raised for both astronomers and those who enjoy the fruits of their research. In this resource list, we examine four areas where the environment and the needs of astronomers meet: the problems caused by the uncontrolled growth of city lights; the issue of reconciling the need of new observatory sites with the safeguarding of endangered species; the difficulty of protecting the frequencies (channels) needed for radio astronomy from the encroachment of cellular phones and other forms of radio communication on Earth; and the thorny problem of how we protect other planets from Earth micro-organisms and the Earth from possible extra-terrestrial microbes. Additions to this list are most welcome.

1. Light Pollution

Few places on Earth remain truly dark as human civilization and its electric lights spread across the globe. For astronomers, trying to collect the faint light of distant objects, this "light pollution" has become a serious problem. Some lights are worse than others in terms of the number of colors (wavelengths) they block from celestial objects. The sources below describe the attempts to balance the needs of cities with the requirements of observatories, and the work astronomers are doing to educate political leaders and the public about this issue.


Crawford, D. & Hunter, T. "The Battle Against Light Pollution" in Sky & Telescope, July 1990, p. 23. A fine review of the current status of problems and solution.

Crawford, D. & Robinson, W. Light Pollution: Problems and Solutions. 1990, Astronomical Society of the Pacific. A set of 20 slides and a 24-page information booklet to help teach and inform about the issues.

Davidson, K. "Hype in Space: Billboards and Other Threats to the Dark" in Mercury, May/June 1993, p. 80.

Hendry, A. "Light Pollution: A Status Report" in Sky & Telescope, June 1984, p. 504.

Hunter, T. & Goff, B. "Shielding the Night Sky" in Astronomy, Sep. 1988, p. 47.

Hunter, T. & Crawford, D. "A Timetable for Better Lighting" in Sky & Telescope, Mar. 1995, p. 96. Progress report on quest for better public lighting in the Northeast.

Kosai, H., et al. "Night Sky Brightness Over Japan" in Sky & Telescope, Nov. 1992, p. 564.

Levy, D. "Ten Dark-Sky Years" in Sky & Telescope, Sep. 1998, p. 32. On the work of the International Dark-Sky Association.

Mood, J. & S. "Palomar and the Politics of Light Pollution" in Astronomy, Nov. 1985, p. 6.

O'Meara, S. "Dark Nights are Safe Nights" in Sky & Telescope, Sep. 1998, p. 84. On ways you can help safeguard the night in your community.

Sperling, N. "Light Pollution: A Challenge for Astronomers" in Mercury, Sep/Oct. 1986, p. 144.

Sullivan, W. "Our Endangered Night Skies" in Sky & Telescope, May 1984, p. 412. On how the pollution in light and radio waves can be detected from space.

Taubes, G. "Twinkle, Twinkle, Great Big Bauble" in Discover, Nov. 1987, p. 60. On the ring of light the French had proposed putting into space.

Web Sites

table of contents

2. Observatory Sites and the Environment

While many new observatories must now file an environmental impact statement, the most publicized clash between astronomers and environmentalist was over a site in Arizona called Mount Graham, where there was some concerned over an endangered species of squirrel.


Waldrop, M. "The Long, Sad Saga of Mount Graham" in Science, 22 June 1990, vol. 248, p. 1479. The story of how a new site for telescopes in Arizona pits astronomers and environmentalists against each other.

Travis, J. "Scopes and Squirrels Return to Court" in Science, 2 Sep. 1994, vol. 265, p. 1356. A sequel to the above. (Further updates can be found on the web sites below.)

Muro, M. "Array Plans Blocked by Indian Ritual Site" in Science, 10 Sep. 1999, vol. 285, p. 1650. How proximity to a native American ritual sweat hut is endangering plans for an array of gamma-ray telescopes. (Update in Science, 24 Dec. 1999, vol. 286, p. 2433.)

Web Sites

  • Mt. Graham International Observatory Site
    - this official web site for the U. of Arizona, summarizes cultural and legal issues concerning the observatory site in the Coronado national forest, including the squirrels issue and concerns by some members of Native American tribes about disturbing sacred burial grounds

  • Vatican Observatory Statement on Mount Graham and Ecology
    - a position paper by one of the observatories using Mt. Graham.

  • Mt. Graham: Non-controversy of the Decade
    - an opinion piece strongly favoring the observatory, by a space enthusiast

  • "Star Gate"
    - this article from an alternative news weekly in Phoenix tells the Mt. Graham story from the point of view of the environmental activists, a radically different perspective from the astronomers.

table of contents

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