CLAYTON, Mich. - Mars shone brightly in the dark night sky, a brilliant disk surrounded by millions of lights no bigger than pinpoints.
No high-powered telescope was necessary to see the planet. Yet each night thousands of people will look to the skies and miss it, its radiance blotted out by the glare of manmade lights.
That's why many stargazers travel to Lake Hudson State Recreation Area in Lenawee County, about 50 miles northwest of Toledo, where the skies are dark, and city lights are too far away to interfere.
The 2,700-acre park was designated as Michigan's first Dark Sky Preserve in 1993, making it the state's only area in which lighting is controlled for the enjoyment of the night sky.
With the expiration of that 10-year designation approaching, amateur astronomers hope state lawmakers will agree to keep it black.
“This is the largest block of land in southeast Michigan without a fixed permanent light,” said Wes Boyd, 53, a local stargazer who worked to secure the dark sky designation. “We have the best combination of dark skies and open horizons with very little development in the area.”
At the Dark Sky Preserve at Lake Hudson State Recreation Area, lighting is limited so it doesn't interfere with activities like stargazing and nighttime and wildlife photography. State Rep. Doug Spade, (D., Adrian) has introduced a bill to make Lake Hudson a permanent dark sky preserve and eliminate the 2003 expiration date. Mr. Spade, who is blind, said he understands why so many people are upset about the ever-disappearing night sky.
“I had never really stopped to think about how light pollution does make it difficult to see the sky. And we're getting more and more light in the state and in the country,” Mr. Spade said. “We just hope we can keep the Dark Sky Preserve as it is.”
The bill, now in the House conservation and outdoor recreation committee, is expected to be considered when the legislature resumes session in September. Members of the Jackson Astronomical Society brought the issue of the waning designation to light. A recent Saturday night visit found veteran and newcomers peering through the eyepieces of a variety of telescopes.
Of course, the darker it is the better.
“This is a dark sky preserve, so we try to observe during the darkest time,” said Bob Frybarger, a member of the Jackson club. And with no clustered development for several miles, darkness comes quickly.
At least once a month, they line up telescopes of various sizes and jump from one to another. As evening dissolves into night, dozens of constellations, satellites, and even planets are pointed out.
Ken Rheault backed away from his 31/2–inch telescope to share the view of Albireo with newcomer Linda Kanser. A longtime stargazer, Mr. Rheault, 53, of Jackson pointed out the double star - one blue, one gold - better known in the circle as the Wolverine star.
Mrs. Kanser, 50, a first-time Lake Hudson visitor, was thrilled by the find. “It's so beautiful,” she said.
Alex Mak, assistant director at the Ritter Planetarium and Brooks Observatory in Toledo, said many people are genuinely interested in astronomy. But as subdivisions replace farmland and skyscrapers continue to blossom, the effects of light pollution are more obvious.
“Kids living in the cities can spend their entire lives without ever seeing the Milky Way,” Mr. Mak said. “In the country, you can see it with the naked eye. But unless you make a point of it, it's possible that a city dweller may never see it.”