Night sky view from Rappahannock unlike any other

Mountains and foothills naturally block light from Luray, Front Royal, Warrenton and Culpeper

By Rick Kohler
Special to the Rappahannock News

The space station flew over Rappahannock at 5:33 p.m. one recent Sunday evening, a marvel of engineering arcing gently across the night sky above the rising half moon for almost three minutes.

The moon lit the southern hemisphere, with the shining space station between it and a sparkling array of stars in the northern hemisphere. A truly beautiful and inspiring moment to capture.

As a point of interest, the moon orbits earth at a speed of 2,288 miles per hour. During this time it travels a distance of 1,423,000 miles. The International Space Station orbits the earth at a speed of roughly 17,150 miles per hour (that’s about 5 miles per second). The space station sees a sunrise once every 92 minutes.

The full magnificence of this sight could not be viewed from Warrenton, Culpeper, Front Royal, Luray, or almost anywhere else. In fact, it could only be seen from a very few places on the entire East Coast due to light pollution — something most of us rarely, if ever, think about.

Rappahannock County is one of only a few places east of the Mississippi River with clear night skies. The Blue Ridge Mountains block the light from Front Royal, Luray and Shenandoah Valley, while foothills block Manassas, Culpeper and Warrenton. So we still enjoy clear, star filled, night skies . . . officially called “Dark Skies” by the international Dark-Sky Association.

Here’s an interesting fact. The Milky Way Galaxy, our galaxy, has a somewhat flat and spiral shape, like a discus thrown by an athlete. Earth, our sun and our entire solar system are a tiny spot on an outer edge of this huge, spiral shaped cluster of galaxies, stars, planets, nebulas, black holes and antimatter.

Our position near the edge allows us to see toward the center, toward the billions of stars constituting our galaxy. With the naked eye it looks a bit cloudy or milky, hence the name Milky Way. From spring until fall, the gift of those stars is ours. In winter, the earth’s orbit places our star, the sun, between earth and the rest of the galaxy. Now we enjoy the dazzling stars and nebulas of Orion and other outer edge constellations. Imagine . . . our Rappahannock view is unique to the universe.

It is estimated 80 percent of the world’s population will never see the Milky Way due to light pollution. To save this wondrous natural resource for future generations, it is important we not suffer the light pollution of the many.

The main source of light pollution is . . . lights . . . not all lights, just those shining upward and outward instead of being focused down and around. There are approximately 334 telephone pole lights in Rappahannock. Most of these have a globe type fixture, are owned by Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), and are leased to property owners.

Rapp Electric offers a new “Dark Skies Compliant” LED fixture which saves electricity and the stars. RLEP has negotiated with REC, upon request by landowners, to remove these outdated fixtures and install the new one for free, anywhere in this county . . . the difference being the light is focused more downward from the top of the telephone pole instead of down, out, up, over and into the universe.

Interestingly, studies have determined that a focused light provides better security. If you have ever been stopped by a policeman at night, when he shines his light in your window, you cannot see. But he can see perfectly because the light is focused. The same holds true for a pole light radiating light in all directions. A focused light provides better security while a globe light constricts your pupils and the outward “glare” makes it harder to see.

This project is completely voluntary. It is spearheaded and funded by the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP.org) in conjunction with REC with financial assistance from the Krebser Fund and Trinity Church. REC will replace any pole light they own on private property with a down-shielded 3000 Kelvin LED light. In the event traffic control is required, there is a charge of $85 which RLEP will pay. Studies show this light is healthier for livestock breeding cycles, and the general health of animals, migrating birds, other wildlife . . . and, importantly, the sleep cycle of humans.

In the event you are interested in replacing your older barn, garage or house fixtures with “Dark Skies” fixtures, RLEP is offering to pay for your these, too. We are researching attractive models and working on additional grants as we think many will be interested and want to participate in this voluntary community-wide effort.

Rappahannock has the opportunity to become a “Dark Skies Friendly Community,” and at no cost. Once lost, we will never get the stars back. We can save our unique view of the stars for future generations. We might even enhance tourism, provide opportunities for youth based businesses and provide needed support to the local restaurants and shops we, as residents, often enjoy visiting.

The writer is president of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection

It’s easy to replace polluting lights!For REC electric pole lights:

  • Call Rappahannock Electric at 800-552-3904
  • Follow the telephone prompts to “Culpeper Engineering”
  • Provide your name, REC account number and physical address
  • Specifically request the ‘Dark Skies Compliant’ model (3000K). If the model is no longer in stock, REC will order the lights and install them when received.
  • Once the lights are replaced, please notify RLEP at (703) 250-7943 to assist with our record keeping.

For private home and barn lights:

Call (703) 250-7943 and an RLEP member will discuss the most attractive and electricity saving solutions with you. And . . . RLEP will pay the cost

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