Starry Night: Town Fights to Stay in the Dark

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TEKAPO, New Zealand - In the book of Genesis, it says God created the sun, the moon, and the stars to give light to the earth. And He said it was good.

But in many parts of the world, stars are hard to see because there is too much urban light at night. But not in Tekapo, New Zealand.

"It's becoming increasingly difficult to find the dark places on earth simply because urban light pollution is taking away the stars, said Astronomer Ade Ashford of the Mt. John Observatory in Tekapo.

Located in the center of New Zealand's South Island, Tekapo is fighting to preserve its night skies. Hundreds of Astro-tourists from all over the world come each week to the Mt. John Observatory to view something that's becoming quite rare in certain parts of the world - stars!

"An estimated 25 percent of the world's population cannot actually see the stars, not at all, which is a dreadful situation," Ashford said. "You have a whole generation of children growing up who've never actually seen the night sky at all."

The Heaven Declare His Glory

Tourists are amazed at the views of the Milky Way above Tekapo's Church of the Good Shepherd. On most nights, you can also see a small, but beautiful constellation known as the Southern Cross, that can only be seen in the Southern Hemisphere.

Only a small percentage of the world can actually see the Milky Way, but here in Tekapo, New Zealand, they get to see it almost every night.

"That's our own galaxy you might say, so that's the one we're most familiar with," Chris Monson, with the Mt. John Observatory, said. "But there are millions, if not billions of stars -between 100 and 500 billion stars- in that galaxy," he said.

From Mt. John, you can also observe two neighboring galaxies known as the Megellanic Clouds, each containing billions of stars. But that's not the only thing going on here.

"The main line of research up here is into the discovery of extra solar planets," Ashford said. "That is planets going around other stars, we know of around 330 planets going around other stars."

Guests are awestruck by Tekapo's night sky, like two young travelers from Ireland CBN News ran into.

"It's amazing. It's fantastic," one young woman told us. "Back in Ireland, we don't see the stars like this."

Another young Irish lady said, "you definitely feel closer to God up here. It makes you think there must be so much more that we don't know about."

During tours of this state-of-the-art facility, astronomers say people often have an emotional reaction to seeing the stars.

"I remember particularly a couple from Australia who came here and one of those ladies actually wept with joy at the prospect of seeing the Milky Way for the first time, something she never thought she would see," Ashford said.

A 'Park in the Sky'

In hopes of protecting their night sky for future generations, the town of around 400 people has mandated special lighting, low-energy sodium lamps that are carefully shielded. Household lights also must face down, not up.

But they're hoping to go even further by becoming the world's first U.N. sanctioned Starlight Reserve, or what they like to call "a park in the sky."

"And two years ago we went to the university and we shared this vision of a 'Park in the Sky,' which is quite a dubious type of vision to be walking around with," said Graeme Murray, director for Mackenzie Tourism and Development. "Suddenly we're in Paris, and we're at UNESCO, and people are thinking that's not such a silly idea."

The idea still faces challenges, as it would be the first time a piece of open sky was designated as a World Heritage Park. But Murray remains hopeful.

"[This year] is the International Year of Astronomy," Murray explained. "When we first approached UNESCO, it was thought that we may well get success for this initiative in this very important year celebrating Galileo's 400 years since he first looked through a telescope. But every step of the way has to be done very carefully."

So, if this starlight reserve concept is given the go-ahead, it will mean that Tekapo and Mt. John will be kept in the dark for generations to come. And that's exactly the way they like it.

Scripture References Concerning the Stars:

  • "He counts the number of the stars; He calls them all by name." Psalm 147:4
  • "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." Psalm 19:1

For more information on Tekapo and the Mt. John Observatory, click here to go to their Web site.

*Originally aired on April 3, 2009.

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