For a decade, Palomar Observatory has begged and cajoled local officials to embrace an unusual anti-pollution campaign--ridding the sky of glare so astronomers can peer farther into the cosmos.
With a 200-inch telescope, "what we're trying to do is understand the structure of the universe, how it came into being, how it evolved," said Robert Brucato, assistant director of the observatory that's operated by the California Institute of Technology.
Brucato and his colleagues are asking that, when new developments come along, communities forsake conventional white outdoor lighting and turn to low-pressure sodium lights, which give off a yellow glow.
Scientists say the difference is that, unlike white lighting, the low-pressure sodium light keeps to a narrow band of the color spectrum that doesn't obscure the faint, distant light of the stars and galaxies.
"Things we're looking at are quite literally 15 billion light years away," said Brucato, who bemoans that, because of the bright outdoor lights from cities surrounding the observatory, "the sky at Palomar is about twice as bright as it should be."
Over the years, San Diego, the county, Escondido, Poway, Vista and San Marcos have agreed to help the observatory. They have adopted ordinances or policies requiring, to varying degrees, that outdoor illumination be provided by the low-pressure sodium lights in new developments.
Now, Oceanside may be the next community to adopt such lighting as the city staff works on an ordinance calling for certain new residential and commercial development to use the yellow lights.
The proposal may go before the City Council later this month.
With nearly 130,000 residents, the largest city in North County hasn't exactly moved speedily to adopt a low-pressure sodium lighting ordinance. Caltech officials approached the city two years ago, but, with other priorities, it has taken until now for the city to respond.
"It wasn't an issue we were entertaining until they came to us," said Oceanside spokesman Larry Bauman.
There's also been some skepticism in Oceanside over low-pressure sodium lights--namely that the bulbs burn out faster, may be marginally economical and might create a problem for police.
Such criticism, which scientists seek to refute, is the reason that Oceanside is only willing to consider using low-pressure sodium lights in future developments such as commercial parking lots, within apartment or condominium complexes and on advertising displays. But not as street lighting.
Bauman said, "The police department doesn't really like low-sodium. They say they can't identify vehicles as well because it distorts colors. (That's) one of the reasons we're not recommending switching street lights, that, and cost."
City staffers believe that utility bills might be lower, but low-pressure sodium lights would require more intensive and costly use of transformers. The cost factor would be "pretty much a wash," Bauman said. These are familiar and persistent criticisms of low-pressure sodium lighting.
In San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, merchants and downtown residents who are fed up with night crime have urged city officials to do something about the low-pressure sodium lighting, which they complain is keeping the historic area too dim.
"I personally believe the crime issue is genuine. (Low-pressure sodium lighting) raises questions of perception and safety," said Wayne Raffesberger, executive director of San Diego Inc., a group that promotes downtown revitalization.
He claims the yellow light invites crime by casting a pallor over buildings. "You lose detail and color to a great degree with these sodium lights," he said.
Groups have appealed to the San Diego City Council for brighter lights, but "we didn't get very far with the council," Raffesberger said. The city has reaffirmed its policy of using low-pressure sodium for street lighting.
Downtown merchants aren't the only ones with doubts about the yellow lighting.
Bill Robinson, spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, agreed that the tint may not make it any easier for officers to do their jobs, although he says he can't recall any cases where low-pressure sodium lighting necessarily aided a criminal.
"Many officers feel that the glow emitted from the lamps obscures details of clothing that a suspect is wearing," said Robinson. He added, "Many times citizens want to help us, and, if they can't give us (accurate) information, it could result in the suspect escaping."
Clearly, there are mixed opinions on the lights.
When San Diego studied low-pressure sodium lighting in 1982, city and police officials in other communities that use such lighting were consulted but reported no adverse affects.
More recently, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and the city of San Marcos have reported experiencing no problem with the yellow glow.
Palomar's Brucato acknowledges that "it's absolutely true" that, with low-pressure sodium lights, "you will not be able to discern colors."