Urban astroninjas

By Phil Plait | March 18, 2009 4:00 pm

One problem with living in light polluted skies is that you grow up with no familiarity with them at all. You really, and simply, don’t know what you’re missing.

That’s why stories like this one, about two astroninjas bringing astronomy to the streets of NYC, are so cool. I’m really glad there are folks out there willing to literally bring the skies to people who otherwise would never know them.


Comments (28)

  1. Yes! That is so awesome! I grew up on Staten Island and, although a lot darker than the city, I never really got to explore amateur astronomy until I moved. This would be fantastic if they can get it off the ground.

    Of course, the blackout in 2003 was a great astronomy opportunity for the city kids.

  2. justcorbly

    I still remember the first time I had a chance to look at the night sky through a real telescope. It was probably a 6- or 8-inch reflector built by an amateur radio guy who was also into moonbounce work. I didn’t become an astronomer because I never could figure out what the hell was going on in eighth-grade algebra class, but it still changed my life. Damn that miserable excuse for an algebra teacher, though. She convinced me I couldn’t handle math, so I didn’t.

    It’s funny, too, how some folks look at the sky and feel like they’re part of all that, while other folks look at the sky and feel scared an alienated, like they’re trespassing in enemy territory. It’s much the same as when some folks claim that evolution teaches that we are all descended (note the negative implications of that word) from other primates, while some of us are proudly aware and amazed that we are the pinnacle of an amazing process. At least, so far.

  3. Fellow BABloggee, Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum, mentioned on his blog (click on my name for the link — I trust you don’t mind, Richard? — of doing something like this; only to be greeted by one cantankerous broad, with two dogs, to his request to set up a ‘scope in her yard on Halloween night with an emphatic “NO!” — the miserable old bat!


    Watch Randi’s latest video on YouTube!

  5. zaardvark

    Cool story, but when they say:

    “On the nights in April that Mr. Kendall wants Dyckman Fields darkened, the moon will rise early … ”

    Do they mean early in the night? Wouldn’t a moonless night be better, to make their point?

  6. mikex

    This sounds pretty neat as an idea but I wonder how well it would actually work. I live an hour outside Toronto and I’ve driven another hour out toward the farms, and the sky glow from the horizons still seems to shroud the whole sky like gauze. Having been backpacking in some real wilderness I know what I’m missing, and it’s sad to think that skies like that will never really be available near any large urban area. Turning out the lights in a park may help dilate one’s pupils a bit wider but the sky itself will still be bright.

    Otoh a hundred stars is better than none, and controlling light pollution has to start somewhere. Hopefully efforts like these will at least raise awareness that stargazing is not just for telescopes on Hawaiian mountaintops.

  7. But… if they’re astroninjas- how would anyone see them?

  8. ND

    You’ll see them only when they want you to see them. Duh! :)

  9. BigBadSis

    Just a little off topic: We went out two nights ago around 7:40pm to watch the ISS traverse the Baltimore sky. It was so bright!!! And it moved very fast. I expect it will be a lot brighter once they get the new solar panels up. Thankfully, we live in the county north of Balmer, so it was very easy to spot. Sadly, we can’t see the Milky Way though.

  10. You never know how a view of a planet through a telescope might affect someone. I get out with my telescope and show off the skies whenever I can even in the bright lights of San Francisco. I am currently evangelizing the “GLOBE at Night” project to get people out counting stars. It motivates interest in astronomy, creates a tangible way to understand and measure light pollution, and creates a sense of global community for those who participate.

  11. Jack Mitcham


    I live in Dundalk, right next to the city line. It’s difficult to see anything from my house, but I can see a good deal more from my parents’ house in White Marsh.

    In what part of Baltimore County was it easy to see the ISS? That’s something I haven’t seen yet.

  12. I grew up in Las Vegas so I had to head out into the desert to see many stars. ( Although watching the missiles launched from Vandenberg AFB (300 miles away) at sunset was always a spectacular treat.)
    While always having more interest in astrophysics & cosmology then skywatching, I can still usually orient myself to the night sky.

    A few years back I was camping at about 6000 ft. between Mono Lake and Benton Hot Springs. The sky was so clear that I could see lightning strikes from a storm over Lake Tahoe (also 300 miles away).
    I was overwhelmed by the number of stars and was unable to identify anything other than the Milky Way, which covered at least a third of the sky spreading from horizon to zenith to horizon).

    Incredibly beautiful & humbling.

  13. BigBadSis

    Jack: Try heavens-above.com. When you register you can add your latitude and longitude from their database and it will give you a chart of upcoming visible passes. It was just getting dark and we could still see it easily.

  14. BigBadSis

    Jack: I am in northern Balto Co. Towson.

  15. Lara

    Thanks so much for posting this article! I knew Jason when he was here at UT Austin and I’m not at all surprised to see him doing something like this.

  16. Steve Ulven

    This is pretty cool. I grew up in North Dakota. I could travel a mile outside Minot and see the Milky Way. Even when I lived in Westhope as a kid (pop. 475 at the time) I could see the Milky Way (and even cooler, the Northern Lights) in town. Now that I live in the Twin Cities I can literally count the stars I can see in a matter of minutes.

    I hated living in ND due to the small town mentality, but the thing I really miss is being able to just hop in my car and drive a few minutes to see thousands of stars. Here, I would have to travel for well over an hour to get that.

  17. «bønez_brigade»

    I always think of John Dobson as more of a pirate than a ninja; but good on those two New Yorkers, nevertheless.

  18. Nick

    I definitely agree about the light pollution. I moved to Reno about 7 months ago and it’s sad to look up at the night sky and only see the moon, a couple planets, and maybe a star or two. I couldn’t imagine growing up without ever seeing the milky way. There’s not much else that can compare to it.

  19. Hoyvin-Mayven

    Cool! Many years ago I used to live in a small town, however to get a really good view of the sky my dad and I took the telescope in the car and went to a small airfield which is rarely used. Away from artificial lights and with the sky being incredibly clear, the Milky Way was absolutely overwhelming. A huge river of stars from one horizon to the other. So many stars it was impossible to make out the constellations. Loved it.

  20. csrster

    “It’s much the same as when some folks claim that evolution teaches that we are all descended (note the negative implications of that word) from other primates, while some of us are proudly aware and amazed that we are the pinnacle of an amazing process. At least, so far.”

    Are there negative implications of the word descended? I’m also descended from nomadic desert shepherds but I don’t feel either degraded or uplifted by that fact. Nor do I consider our species the pinnacle of evolution so far. Yes we have the biggest intellect, but elephants have better trunks. _We_ think intellect is more important than a good long trunk, but then we would, wouldn’t we?

    (Incidentally I sometimes wonder why creationists harp on about being descended from monkeys – is it because their mental furniture can’t even address the idea that evolution also implies that we are descended from bacteria ?)

  21. justcorbly

    I’m pretty sure the word “descended”, crster, carries a negative connotation in religious anti-evolution circles. They aren’t using the word in a genealogical sense.

    Yes, elephants have better trunks, birds better tails, and dogs better barks. But trunks, wings and barks don’t give those animals the abilities our brain gives us.

  22. jr

    Dumb question:

    How powerful of a telescope do I need to see Saturn?

    I’d like to try that.

    This being the International Year of Astronomy and all…


  23. It struck me as so incredibly sad when I read that 2/3 of people in the US live in places where the sky is not dark enough to see the Milky Way. And how many people wouldn’t know what it was? I smile everytime I see it. It’s a reminder that we are part of something much bigger.

  24. Craig

    @justcorbly: no, the trunks etc. give them entirely different abilities than the ones that our brains do. But declaring that brain-based abilities (which many other critters also have in part; any mammal brain is a fantastically impressive bit of biological “engineering”) are more important than any other sort of ability does seem a touch anthropocentric.

    Yes, brains make us very adaptable and let us occupy a great variety of ecological niches. But single-celled organisms have us comprehensively stomped on both of those measures and countless multicellular creatures occupy larger areas than we do/live longer than we do/perceive things we can’t/survive in places we can’t/etc.

    Those brains are also very expensive to maintain, metabolically speaking, and the “programming” time they require is the reason why human children are so horrifically vulnerable for so long. From a long-term objective point of view, economising on brain size is often a very sensible thing for an organism to do.

    Humans do not occupy the majority of the Earth’s surface; it’s under water. We only live on the skin of the onion; life continues down into the very bedrock. We exist on a tiny membrane wedged between boiling lava and radioactive vacuum, and imagine that we’re masters of the universe.

    If anything is the current pinnacle of evolution, everything is: a 21st century ape or bacteria or tree is just as “evolved” as we are. The great apes aren’t humanity’s ancestors; they are our cousins. We both “descended” from the same thing; we just ended up living in different ecological niches.

  25. “Hey!” Mr. Kendall said. “You wanna see Saturn?”
    Wsam tentatively peered through Mr. Kendall’s telescope.
    “I don’t believe it!” he exclaimed. “Saturn really does have a ring.”

    Try it again in a few months, and let the conspiracists speculate on the “Saturn’s rings are really just a hoax” story. :-)

  26. justcorbly

    Yes, yes, Craig, but I did not say our brains are more important, in an evolutionary sense, than an elephant’s trunk.

    I’m not really looking at this from an evolutionary point of view, and I’m not really interested in how well-adapted other animals are. (If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be here to talk about.) Even the most adaptively evolved bacteria doesn’t have the ability to study and change its environment. It’s our ability to do that — we study bacteria, not the other way around — that makes us different. It is not the level of some creature’s evolution that interests me, but the creature’s capabilities. Nature may not agree, but I think being a thinking tool-making primate trumps eveverthing else.

  27. Jay

    I met Jason last month at Inwood Astronomy’s Lulin event, which attracted at least 80 people (who walked to the observing site at the top of a hill in a dark park at night!) and was a great success – despite the super-fuzziness of Lulin.

    Since that event I have signed on to the sidewalk astronomy movement, sharing the skies in the northwest Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale. Check out what we’ve seen at riverdaleastronomy.blogspot.com. People have loved it!


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