Arizona has long been a destination for stargazers and astronomers who take advantage of the state’s dark skies. Here are 15 amazing photos that show off the best Arizona has to offer.
Every year Joe Bill watched the light draw closer.
He moved to Fountain Hills 30 years ago, after half a life spent underneath the speckled night skies of Minnesota and rural Wisconsin.
Fountain Hills felt like the Midwest. The town was small, but Phoenix was a short drive away. The famous fountain was nice to look at. And at night, the dark sky filled with stars and planets.
Then Fountain Hills grew. More people needed more lights. The big city’s edge crept closer. LED lights took over. A dome of light spread over the Valley of the Sun, and Fountain Hills’ starry nights started to fade.
“When you move to an area where all of a sudden the sky glow is increasing on an annual basis,” Bill said, “that starts getting your attention after a while.”
Arizona’s fourth Dark Sky Community
So Bill and his wife, Nancy, decided they would try to keep the town dark. They started the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association, speaking around town and pushing policies to stem light pollution.
Their campaign paid off. The International Dark-Sky Association named Fountain Hills an official Dark Sky Community on Monday, adding it to a list of 17 communities across the world that have pledged to stop sky glow’s spread.
It’s the fourth Dark Sky Community in Arizona, joining Flagstaff, Sedona and the Village of Oak Creek.
Fountain Hills, which is 30 miles northeast of Phoenix, is the second near a major metropolitan area. The first was Homer Glen, Ill., outside Chicago.
“Because the focus with Dark Sky Communities is on public policy and public outreach and education, they need not have a dark sky to begin with,” said IDA Director of Conservation John Barentine. “The idea is about changing public perceptions about lighting in urban areas and promoting not just reducing lighting levels, but better quality lighting.”
Because light from Phoenix has already leaked over Fountain Hills, the town does not qualify as a “Dark Sky Sanctuary,” the IDA’s label for spaces lacking light pollution. Instead, the focus of the town’s two-year application process was on updating its existing lighting.
The Town Council rewrote its lighting ordinance to ensure streetlights point straight down and use warm-colored bulbs — red, yellow and orange — instead of traditional bright white.
The changes were simple. Fountain Hills had few streetlights to begin with, and none of the screaming towers or billboards that brighten Phoenix’s skies. It cost just $23,000 to update the town’s public lighting.
“We have always been a dark sky community,” senior planner Marissa Moore said. “Now we have a specific designation.”
That designation puts Fountain Hills at the forefront of an international movement. As cities grow and darkness disappears, astronomers and activists alike have tried to protect what little sky remains untouched.
Almost 80 percent of people in North America are unable to see the Milky Way galaxy from where they live, according to a 2016 study published in Science Advances. The same study estimated that 99 percent of Americans and Europeans live under light-polluted skies.
That extra light, research says, comes with hazards. Bright-white LED bulbs can throw off animal behavior and human sleep patterns. Sprawling streetlights can make property and pedestrians visible to potential criminals. Unnecessary light wastes electricity that costs money.
And in Arizona, the spread of light pollution could harm the state’s space and astro-tourism industry, which a 2008 study by the University of Arizona found brings in more than $250 million a year.
Arizona is pretty important to space exploration. Here’s why. Wochit
Joe Bill sees Fountain Hills carving out its own place in that field. He’s studied the resorts that offer telescopes on every balcony and the restaurants that created space-specific menus: Galaxy Desserts and Starry Night Margaritas.
“There might be potential for Fountain Hills to do that,” Bill said.
The town will first attempt to promote its new designation with the Dark Sky Festival in April. Scientists will speak, craft beer will flow and a string of telescopes will show off the dark skies.