Loss of the Night: Stargazing and Citizen Science

Contribute to light pollution research with the Loss of the Night Android app!

Citizen science after hours…here are some citizen science projects you can do at night.

Effects of Skyglow due to artificial light on star visibility
Effects of skyglow on star visibility (Image courtesy Loss of the Night)

I’m going to take a quick bet and guess that every one who is reading this post has at least once gazed up at a clear sky and been fascinated by all the stars out there. If you’re out walking in the night with your friends or family, stargazing is probably the cheapest way to entertain yourself for hours on end.

Now, what if you could have all that fun, learn about constellations and contribute to science at the same time? There’s an app for that.

The science that we are talking about here is research on light pollution. Light pollution is the excessive artificial light that is added by sources such as poorly designed street lighting and over-illumination (imagine Times Square, Las Vegas or empty offices with the lights on all night).

Though we associate the increased availability of artificial lighting as a measure of human progress, it has unintended consequences. Birds misdirected by illuminated structures often suffer fatal collisions and freshly hatched turtles die because they wrongly migrate towards illuminated lands instead of the sea. Light pollution also significantly affects the diurnal or nocturnal nature of animals. As humans, our internal body clocks are also very tightly linked to the rhythmic changes in light between day and night. Artificial lighting can disrupt this rhythm leading to consequences to our health such as disorders associated with poor sleep patterns. So more light is not always good. Now that I’ve made you sufficiently concerned about this issue, I’m going to tell you how you can help!

Identifying stars in the night sky is one way by which we can measure light pollution. In a setting with lots of artificial lighting, the number of stars that are visible will be less. By gathering large amounts of information on star visibility from different locations around the world, citizen scientists can contribute extremely valuable data to the research effort on light pollution. Since not all of us are adept at identifying stars and constellations, several initiatives have come forward to help citizen scientists participate. One if them is the Loss of the Night (official site) (Verlust der Nacht in German) research network funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The app was built in partnership with Cosalux. It investigates the causes and consequences of light pollution with the goal of developing improved and sustainable lighting concepts.

Loss of the night: Measure light pollution in 3 easy steps
Loss of the night: Measure light pollution in 3 easy steps (Image courtesy Loss of the Night)

The data collected is sent to a larger international citizen science project called ‘GLOBE at Night’ which has been collecting and mapping this data since 2006. Over the past 8 years, more than 100,000 data points have been collected by Globe at Night from citizen scientists in 115 countries. Around 10,000 (and counting) of these data points have been contributed by the Loss of the night app. For 2014, the Globe at Night project plans to collect data about specific constellations at defined windows every month of the year. To start adding your own observations to this effort, I’ve come up with a simple guide below.

[Note – This month’s Globe at Night campaign is ending on 2/28! Send in your measurements whenever you can! Don’t worry, you can still participate outside of the campaign dates.]

A how-to guide for Loss of the Night

  1. Be safe, and be aware of your surroundings. Find level ground with room to move around. Always have a companion with you to watch out for potential hazards when you are walking around with your eyes to the sky. Wear appropriate clothing to protect yourself from the elements.
  2. Download Loss of the night on your Android phone. When using the app for the first time, you may optionally choose to enter information about yourself such as your age, whether you wear glasses and your email address. You can also create a username if you wish to track your observations on the GLOBE at night map. (Don’t have an Android phone? Check out the Dark Sky Meter iOS project or Globe at Night project for other ways to contribute!)
  3. Go out on a night when the sky is clear. If you’re in North America use the Clear Sky Chart to find out sky conditions close to where you are. Alternatively if you’re just out at night with friends, family or a significant other and see a clear night sky get cracking!
  4. Whip out your smartphone, fire up the app and point the camera at the night sky. You will see a red circle with an arrow. Note: If it’s not dark enough outside, the app will prompt you to measure at a different time.
  5. Move your phone in the general direction of the arrow. The app uses the electronic compass in your phone to identify your direction. When you are in the right position to identify a star, the screen will freeze and the circle will enlarge.
  6. If you can see the star identified on your screen in the sky select ‘Star is visible’. If you cannot or youre not sure, select ‘Not visible or unsure’.  Congratulations! You’ve made a measurement!
  7. In order to get a reliable reading of how dark the night sky is, you will need to take at least 7 measurements. If you’re feeling particularly curious, you can always keep going and take more than 7. The success of the project depends upon getting as many readings as possible so keep measuring!
  8. (Optional but definitely recommended!) If Scistarter helped you get started, tell us how it worked out. Give us a shout out on Twitter or Facebook! If you haven’t already, sign up to learn about cool projects in the future.

Check out the detailed guide for more information and help using the app.

Images: Courtesy of Loss of the Night

Arvind Suresh graduated with his MS in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from PSG College of Technology, India. He is also an information addict, gobbling up everything he can find on and off the internet. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science, and following that interest led him to SciStarter. Outside the lab and the classroom, he can be found behind the viewfinder of his camera. Connect with him on TwitterLinkedIn or at his Website.


Categories: Astronomy & Space, Citizen Science, Nature & Outdoors

About the Author

Arvind Suresh

Arvind Suresh

Arvind Suresh is science communicator and a former laboratory biologist, he has a Master’s degree in Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He enjoys reading, teaching, talking and writing science. Connect with him on Twitter @suresh_arvind.