Looking up at the stars; Dark Sky efforts trending

The Milky Way lights up the night sky on the beach at Hunting Island State Park.

From the dark glade, the bright spirals of the Andromeda Galaxy can be seen — with the naked eye — 2.3 million light years away. The Milky Way is a cloud of lights. The entire sky is flush with stars.

“When it’s clear it seems like you can see forever,” said Bob Hampton, Blue Ridge Astronomy Club president.

The glade, incongruously, is an old mountain landfill site near Spruce Pine, N.C., where the nearby Mayland Community College has won accreditation by the International Dark-Sky Association as the first Star Park in the Southeast.

How rare is that? It’s only the 22nd site in the world to be designated.

The accreditation is the brightest point around for a Dark Sky movement taking hold in the Lowcountry and across the street-lit nation, to bring back the visible night sky. It’s gaining momentum as more people and communities turn to lower cost, energy saving lighting that points down instead of up or out.

As the Lowcountry coast grows at rate of 48 people per day, the ambient light it emanates grows, too. The humid region, never considered a prime location for clear night skies, is already battling light pollution in efforts, such as dimming beach lights during sea turtle nesting season.

The parks “are a reason to come out to see something very few people are aware of,” said Jim Hoffman, president of the Lowcountry Stargazers. The group that has contracted with the Charleston Park and Recreation Commission to install an observatory platform at Johns Island County Park, hoping to establish a similar star park here.

Any number of locations here already are sought out by Dark Sky enthusiasts, including Hunting Island near Beaufort, pointed out as a favorite by both Jon Wilmesherr, Mayland college learning resource director, who handled the park effort there, and Shreenivasan Manievannan, a photographer who specializes in night shots with the stars ablaze.

“There’s no light pollution from northeast to south and you would be able to see the stars clearly even from the horizon on a crisp night,” Manievannan said.

Among other sought-out sites on the coast are Capers Island, Roxbury Park near Edisto Island and the Francis Marion National Forest. Farther inland, sites include Congaree National Park, the lake at Table Rock State Park and Jocassee Lake.

Hoffman sought the Johns Island site after club members brainstormed how to win Dark Sky accreditation. The club potentially wants build an observatory. It’s not so easy a feat. The park sky is reasonably dark, he said, because of the rural land around it and lighting restrictions on neighboring Kiawah Island. But development is planned nearby.

Accreditation is won partly because a site has infrastructure to support observations but mostly because the sky doesn’t have that man-lit glow. The Mayland park benefits from its remote mountaintop site, but college officials had to win lighting concessions from a nearby storage site and in county zoning for the area.

The college is now building an observatory to house a 34-inch (aperture) observatory telescope. Mayland’s Blue Ridge Star Park and Observatory is already drawing international visitors, said John Boyd, college president. What they have learned in that effort could guide efforts here, Boyd and Wilmesherr said.

“A lot of light is wasted. It goes up in the skies where it doesn’t really need to go,” Wilmesherr said. “We think we have to have light shining up on top of things to be safe, but we really don’t. It just needs to shine where people stand.”

The Stargazers club wants to make that point. It’s holding a free astronomy program at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island on April 15, celebrating International Dark Sky Week. This year the week is observed Sunday through April 10.

On clear Wednesday nights, the club sets up telescopes at Brittlebank Park on the Ashley River in Charleston, Hoffman said.

“Just to let people know you can’t see the night sky, or see very little of it,” he said.

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