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The edge of night

With the glare of city lights creeping close behind, Deborah Schoch follows a team of sky watchers as they race to chart what's left of the dark.

October 07, 2003|By Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer
  • Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times
Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times (hkxiyckf20080408150025/600 )

ISLAND IN THE SKY, UTAH — We are sprawled flat on our backs on a sandstone slab, soaking in darkness this August night with the satisfaction of Iditarod dropouts basking in a wintertime tropical sun.

Above us, the sky pulsates with 11,000 visible stars. We can pick out the Pleiades, Andromeda and Perseus' double cluster as shooting stars whisk by, the last of the Perseids meteor shower. Mars burns feverishly. The Milky Way, thick with stars, forms a wide silver arch over our heads.

We are deep inside Canyonlands National Park at an outlook called Grand View Point, one of the darkest spots in the United States: 57 miles from the Interstate 70 headlights, 33 miles from the nearest stoplight, 27 miles from a gas station sign, 12 from an electrical outlet.

This is land so savage and remote that outlaws from Butch Cassidy to George Hayduke could vanish within it. Its canyons can swallow up adventurers like Aron Ralston, pinned under a boulder for five days until he cut off his forearm, rappelled down a canyon and walked five miles before being rescued.

Yet even here, at 3:30 a.m., we cannot escape the light.

The faint dome to the east is Moab, population 4,479, 30 miles beyond the canyons. Green River glows to the north, Monticello and Blanding to the south. And those moving orbs are cars flying down Route 46 near the Colorado state line.

Light by light, we are losing sight of the unknown. The universe awash in stars — a source of wonder and inquiry since civilization began — is being obliterated by mega-wattage spilling into the sky from every corner: malls, airports, ballparks, theme parks, billboards, car dealerships, miniature golf courses, the neighbor's driveway.

Forty percent of Americans live under night skies so bright that their eyes no longer have to adjust to night vision. Two-thirds of the U.S. population cannot see the Milky Way, and more than half of today's young people have never seen it at all.

That is why a rangy National Park Service scientist named Dan Duriscoe, LED headlamp slung around his neck, has the lugged a camera-telescope to the brink of a cliff that drops 1,280 feet to the White Rim Shelf and then 1,000 more to the Colorado River.

Grand View is "the edge of the world," he says, and then falls silent, hypnotized by the stars.

Like the images of Eliot Porter, who rafted through Glen Canyon in the early 1960s to document its beauty before the dam gates closed to create Lake Powell, the pictures Duriscoe takes here, if nothing else, will remind us of what the West once looked like.

From above

Hundreds of miles above Grand View Point, a U.S. Air Force satellite hurtles westward across the continent, snapping images of the glittering New York megalopolis, a jeweled string of Midwestern cities, then Denver and Salt Lake City and, finally, the white glare of Southern California. Within these brackets of bright light is a scattering of dark splotches where Duriscoe and two other Night Sky Team members measure the penetration of light into national parks.

Emerging in the evenings with the moths and night lizards, the team has visited two dozen parks to record thousands of night-sky images. The lights of Phoenix reach 140 miles into Organ Pipe National Monument. Los Angeles lights have been detected at Pinnacles National Monument, 225 miles north. In Death Valley, a blob seen with the naked eye from Dante's View turns out to be the spotlight beam atop Las Vegas' Luxor Hotel.

When Duriscoe, 47, and his Night Sky Team colleague, 25-year-old Angie Richman, meet in Moab to take readings at Canyonlands and Arches national parks, the forecast is foreboding, with thick clouds threatening to eclipse the stars. Already, summer storms have postponed this trip once, and they have just days to finish before the moon grows bright enough to smother the faintest stars.

Twilight falls as they drive uphill through Canyonlands, passing the last tourists. Saddled with heavy backpacks and hard-shell suitcases, they hike through sweet-smelling juniper and pinion pine to reach the ledge. The cliffs below dim to a rose-purple glow, then vanish. The stars take over.

Duriscoe and Richman work swiftly in the dark, assembling a portable observatory. They snap cables to an RV battery strong enough to power a telescope, computer and camera for three nights of star-watching. Although they have done this job a hundred times, setup takes more than an hour.

Finally, a telescope barrel the size and shape of an Electrolux vacuum cleaner aims upward. Duriscoe clicks a computer key to start the shooting. Every 30 seconds, it emits a whirring sound, audibly shifts position and records another image. Attached is a highly sensitive CCD camera, cooled to minus-18 degrees Celsius to ensure image quality. It will snap 108 photographs in 54 minutes.

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