Night light hinders UK astronomers

October 10, 2003

MPs this week condemned the government and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council for their lack of action in dealing with light pollution, writes Caroline Davis.

They said astronomers were being forced to use overseas facilities, seriously hindering astronomy research in the UK.

Thereport from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report says: "The committee is in no doubt that light pollution is getting worse: astronomers and the general public mourn the loss of the night sky."

It adds that the Department for Education and Skills is also having to pay for schoolchildren interested in the subject to remotely access overseas facilities.

Paul Murdin, fellow of the institute of astronomy at Cambridge University and former head of astronomy at PParc, praised the MPs for raising the issue.

He added that the UK needed to have controls on light pollution. "Yes, we can do serious observation. But it's not going to be world-class," he said.

The problem was first recognised during the second world war, when the Greenwich Observatory was moved to Sussex. But seaside light pollution proved too much. UK astronomy research subsequently moved to the Canary Islands, where its productivity justified the extra expense, time and inconvenience, Dr Murdin said.

Select committee member Tom Harris, MP for Glasgow Cathcart, said that if the government was serious about getting children interested in studying science, astronomy was the way to do it. He added that much of the data used by professional astronomers came from amateurs based in the UK.

The committee called for regulations to put a time limit on external lighting for municipal buildings and called on local authorities to replace street lighting with modern designs that focus the light downwards rather than allowing it to leak upwards.

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