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It’s time for a little test. This isn’t a test of your knowledge of the universe, though, but of your ability to see it through the glow of outdoor lighting.
To take the test, first find the Big Dipper. It’s high in the north as night falls right now, and it’s upside down, as though the bowl were pouring its contents on the ground below. Then line up the two stars at the outer edge of the bowl, and follow that line to the lower right. The first bright star you come to is Polaris, the North Star.
All of that should be pretty easy. But the next step — the real test — is a bit tougher.
After your eyes adapt to the darkness, look to the upper right of Polaris, toward the tip of the Big Dipper’s handle. Can you see a pattern of stars that outlines a second dipper — the Little Dipper? Polaris is the tip of its handle, with the bowl above it.
One corner of the bowl is marked by Kochab, a star that’s about the same brightness as Polaris. But the other five stars that outline the dipper are fainter. The faintest, in fact, is less than one-tenth as bright as Polaris.
And that’s the test. If you can see the entire outline of the Little Dipper, then congratulations! You have nice, dark skies that will allow you to appreciate the universe in all its glory. If you can’t see anything but Polaris and Kochab, then your skies fail the test. They’re polluted by streetlamps, porch lights, and other sources that overpower the glow of faint stars, meteors, and the Milky Way.
But you can take some steps to return your night sky to its full glory. You can find out how at mcdonaldobservatory.org/darkskies.
Script by Damond Benningfield