In just a couple of months, the new James Webb Space Telescope, by far the most powerful that humanity on this planet has been able to come up with yet, will complete its set-up and testing from its location already 18 million miles in space, and will finally be commissioned to begin routine probing and sending back crystal clear images from far deeper in the universe, and further back in time than we’ve been able to observe ever before. The results are already proving astounding.
The NASA project, run in conjunction with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, was built in part by Falls Church’s Northrup Grumman company.
This Saturday, May 21, is the annual Astronomy Day at the Crockett Park in nearby Midland, Virginia when a lot of new stargazers are expected due to the interest in the new telescope and its revelations. The park is south of Warrenton off Route 15 and the event goes from 1 to 4 p.m.
The scientists involved in the Webb telescope project have limited discussions of the scope of what the new telescope will be able to show going much, much further back to the time when the “Big Bang” that allegedly founded the universe occured. It will also provide enormous amounts of new data about the relatively-recently discovered phenomena of “black holes” and how they operate, including by providing images that are already coming in of “event horizons” on the lips of black holes, including the one we recently discovered, sits at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy.
It will also be able to document how Einstein’s Theory of Relativity operates in real time, the way that gravity bends the time-space continuum, revealing a lot of new information on the implications of this for our current appreciation of time-space.
And it will likely be that the $64 dollar question will be conclusively answered, too, dealing with the existence and extent, or not, of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos. There should be enough “signatures” out there that we will be able to identify for the first time to determine that.
All these exciting developments coming beginning in just the next few months is already turning the gaze of millions on our tiny orb skyward. In recent years, the expanse of urbanization, and its use of electric light, has dramatically diminished our ability to look upon and contemplate the universe in which we sit.
So as data from the new James Webb Space Telescope begins to filter in to observers on this planet, finding places nearby with a diminished urbanization impact, where folks can get a relatively clear and good look at our skies, will assuredly become much more important.
So far around here, help is available in the form of a small Chantilly-based Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC), active in this area since 1980 with now about 1,000 members.
Among its regular activities is involvement with an annual International Dark Sky Week, observed during the week of the new moon in April (this year it fell between Apr. 22 — 30), founded in 2003 by a high school student from Virginia in an effort to raise awareness of light pollution (any unneeded artificial light) and its harmful effects on nocturnal animals, like bats and other pollinators.
But Dark Sky Week also highlights, of course, the night sky itself and presents a dedicated opportunity for amateur astronomers and stargazers to get a better look at the universe we are in.
The less light pollution, the better the view. In fact, according to the National Park Service, “roughly 80 percent of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way due to electric lights at night.” The dark sky is nowhere near as dark and clear as it once was, especially in the densely-populated, urbanized Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.
Even though the official Dark Sky Week is over, the website — found at idsw.darksky.org — features events from all around the world that occur throughout the year (organizations can even submit an event to add to the online calendar).
The local astronomy club’s emphasis rests on supporting the active observation of the sky, as well as on coordinating community outreach on an individual and group basis. Their motto, “To observe, and to help others observe,” encapsulates their work, which in turn embraces a wide range of astronomers, from newcomers to professional researchers and educators.
NOVAC holds monthly meetings with guests from the professional astronomical community, mentors new members, participates with Astronomical League and International Dark Sky Association programs, and provides observing sessions for local youth and civic groups, like various Scout troops.
The club also hosts two major events each year, weather permitting: Astronomy Day in the month of May and StarGaze in October. This year, Astronomy Day is this coming Saturday, May 21, at C.M. Crockett Park, 10066 Rogues Rd., in Midland, Virginia.
Astronomy Day includes a telescope meet and greet, solar and night sky observing, and other demonstrations.
NOVAC cooperates with George Mason University (that has its own observatory at its Fairfax campus), the University of Maryland, the Analemma Society, the Chevy Chase Community Center and other astronomy programs in the Washington, D.C. region.
The Analemma Society (analemma.org) has a similar mission, operating “exclusively for educational and scientific purposes,” seeking to further develop “awareness, appreciation, and understanding of science through astronomy” for all.
The “homebase” of all this rests at Observatory Park at Turner Farm (925 Springvale Rd, Great Falls, Virginia), operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA). The observatory there includes an Orientation Room utilized for educational programs, featuring three telescopes and a retractable, “roll-top” roof.
Robert Kellogg, Analemma Society webmaster, explained how in addition to the different events and courses at Observatory Park, there are experiential activities, “such as opening the observatory grounds…to watch the lunar eclipse” (which took place this past Sunday night, on the 15th).
Alan Figgatt, a co-coordinator of the astronomy courses offered through the FCPA and the Parktakes program, works with Jeff Kretsch in leading a team of volunteers during the Friday night public observations, using binoculars and telescopes. “The Friday public sessions are weather dependent,” explains Figgatt. “We have canceled the last two Friday events due to weather.”
NOVAC events, activities at Observatory Park and these nature walks all in some way incorporate information on light pollution, as artificial sources of light, especially in great quantity, not only make it harder to see all the stars on a given night but often negatively affect nocturnal animals and their place in the ecosystem.
Tammy Schwab, Manager, Education and Outreach at FCPA Resource Management, talked about light pollution in the region, explaining how “one of the immediately noticeable impacts of light pollution is the number of stars you can see with the naked eye. With light pollution in effect, only the brightest stars can be seen as the dimmer stars…are now washed out by the sky glow of light pollution.”
Schwab added that “this impacts other astronomy activities” as well, “including reducing the number of meteors seen during a meteor shower event. In general, these effects reduce the impact of the night sky experience that you might feel when in a dark sky area seeing millions of stars and the milky way.” Burke Lake Park, at 7315 Ox Rd, Fairfax Station, VA, is one of these dark sky areas available to the public and will be hosting a series of Campfire Saturdays: Stargazing events throughout next month.
“Some of FCPA’s astronomy programs across the county are about simply stargazing with the naked eye, learning and appreciating constellations and their stories…however, Fairfax county is very lucky to have the rolltop observatory at Turner Farm,” Schwab says.
Even though they are specifically designed to see farther and deeper into space, “telescope observations are also impacted by light pollution. While planets themselves are little impacted, we lose sight of many of their moons. With a good pair of binoculars or small telescope you could see four of Jupiter’s 53 named moons.”
In terms of in-person astronomy programs and events, Schwab explained that they are “actually at their peak from October to January when the sky gets darker earlier, allowing more reasonable time for viewing. This is when we have our monthly astronomy festivals. In the summer, darkness comes so late it is hard schedule programs lasting until true darkness.”
(Alex Russell contributed to this report).