Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lost In Space Race: Female Pilots

By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

Women had the "right stuff," too, back in the '60s. But the data on their performance tests were buried in the Mad Men era, and it was two decades before there was an American female astronaut.

A report in the current Advances in Physiology Education reveals that the "Mercury 13" members of the private Woman in Space Program of the early 1960s did about as well as, or better than, male candidates identically tested.

"Some of these women were told they were as good as men. The data show it was true," says lead author Kathy Ryan of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

But the 13 women who passed the astronaut tests at Lovelace saw their chance at "one giant step for womankind" canceled in 1961. "I quit my job teaching flight instruction, and … there I was, unemployed," says Gene Nora Jessen, 72, of Boise.

The push for female astronauts began in 1959 when clinic chief W. Randolph Lovelace II and Gen. Donald Flickinger of the U.S. Air Force began a program to test female pilots as astronaut candidates. "They reasoned women were smaller and breathed less oxygen," Ryan says. When the Air Force canceled the effort later that year, Lovelace's clinic took over privately, running the same physical tests on 19 female pilots that 32 male candidates underwent. Of the women, 13 passed (68%); of the men, 18 passed (56%).

The top four women tested as fit as the Mercury 7 astronauts, Ryan says. One in particular, Jerrie Cobb, "really had the right stuff." Cobb passed all tests and far exceeded Mercury 7's average in flight time and endurance.

Almost none of the data were published. But one of Ryan's co-authors, Jack Loeppsky of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albuquerque, had studied with one of the testing physicians and kept the data on aerobic capacity. When Ryan became interested in the subject, Loeppsky produced the data.

"If we had access to the data, we'd have known they were quite capable," says Margaret Weitekamp of the National Air & Space Museum, author of Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America's First Women In Space Program. It was never an official NASA program, but the agency embraced the Mercury 13, crediting them with paving the way for others.

Jessen, who is on a tour for her book, The Fabulous Flight of the Three Musketeers, harbors no grudges: "It was wonderful to be part of that time."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

After 5 Years, Space Tourism A Work In Progress

By JOHN ANTCZAK and ALICIA CHANG, Associated Press Writers

LOS ANGELES – When a private spaceship soared over California to claim a $10 million prize, daredevil venture capitalist Alan Walton was 68 and thought he'd soon be on a rocket ride of his own.

Walton plunked down $200,000 to be among the first space tourists to make a suborbital thrill-ride high above the Earth aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship.

Now he intends to ask for his deposit back if there's no fixed launch date by his 74th birthday next April.

"This was going to be the highlight of my old age," he said.

It has been five years since SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft, captured the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004, by demonstrating that a reusable rocket capable of carrying passengers could fly more than 62 miles high twice within two weeks — showing reliability and commercial viability.

Enthusiasm over SpaceShipOne's feats was so high that year that even before the prize-winning flight, British mogul Richard Branson announced an agreement to use the technology in a second-generation design, SpaceShipTwo, to fly commercial passengers into space under the Virgin Galactic banner by 2007.

It seemed that anyone who had the money would soon be experiencing what SpaceShipOne pilot Brian Binnie called "literally a rush — you light that motor off and the world wakes up around you." And then the sensation of weightlessness and the sight of the world far below.

Turning the dream into reality has taken longer than many expected in those days, and spaceflight remains the realm of government astronauts and a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people who have paid millions for rides on Russian rockets to the international space station.

X Prize founder Peter Diamandis says, however, that things have not been at a standstill.

More than $1 billion has been invested in the industry, regulatory roadblocks have been addressed and as many as three different passenger spaceships will emerge in the next 18 to 24 months and begin flying, he said.

"You'll get another large injection of excitement in public interest once those vehicles begin operating and the public starts getting flown," he said.

Freight business owner Edwin Sahakian has seen signs of progress. He and four other Virgin Galactic customers got a peek at SpaceShipTwo this summer during a visit to the Scaled Composites plant at the Mojave Airport, where it is being built by maverick aviation designer Burt Rutan.

At the time it was the color of carbon fiber — dark gray — and had not been painted. Its engine had not been assembled either, but Sahakian was impressed with one aspect: lots of big windows.
"This is not a grandiose mock-up. This is the real thing," said the 46-year-old Sahakian, who is a flight instructor in his spare time.

During the campaign to win the X Prize, Rutan had stressed that a tourism spacecraft would have to have big windows to give passengers a view and it would have to be at least 100 times safer than any spacecraft ever flown.

The project was dealt a setback two years ago when three technicians were killed in an explosion while testing SpaceShipTwo's propellant system. Scaled Composites, which was bought by Northrop Grumman Corp., was cited for five workplace violations and fined $28,870 in connection with the blast that also critically injured three men.

Like SpaceShipOne, its successor will be carried aloft by a special jet aircraft dubbed the WhiteKnightTwo. The rocketship will be released at high altitude before the pilot ignites its motor. After reaching the top of its trajectory, it will fall back into the atmosphere and glide to a landing.

Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said testing of WhiteKnightTwo is in full swing, with flights above 52,000 feet.

The completed SpaceShipTwo is expected to be unveiled in December in Mojave and first test flights will begin next year, with full-fledged space launches to its maximum altitude by or during 2011, Whitehorn said.

But no timetable for the start of commercial operations is being released, he said.

Whitehorn said Virgin Galactic continues to hold $40 million in deposits by 300 customers.

X Prize Foundation President Robert K. Weiss acknowledged that "things are a few years behind what was originally anticipated" but said he is certain there will be commercial spaceflights within this decade and the interest of people will be reinvigorated.

"When the demand starts to ramp up, the price is going to come down and so it's not going to be a couple hundred thousand dollars, it's going to be the price of, let's say, an automobile," he said.

The foundation, meanwhile, has branched out with its concept of spurring innovation through monetary incentives. Multimillion-dollar X Prizes are being offered in competitions to send a privately funded robot to the moon, build production-capable cars with the equivalent of 100 mpg efficiency, and for developing technology to greatly reduce the time it takes to sequence human genomes.

Diamandis said that while 10 years ago, he found it hard to get anyone to listen to the concept of the X Prize until telecommunications millionaire Anousheh Ansari and her family funded the first one.

Now he says he is seeing a substantial increase in interest from philanthropists, corporations and government agencies in spurring innovation through incentives.

"In financial stress times, prizes really work very well because you only pay upon success," he said.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Space Shuttle Undocks From Space Station

By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer Marcia Dunn, Ap Aerospace Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Discovery and its seven astronauts pulled away from the international space station on Tuesday and headed home, leaving tons of fresh supplies behind as well as a new face.

The shuttle is due back on Earth on Thursday.

"We're pretty fat with supplies now thanks to you," called out space station astronaut Michael Barratt. "God speed you on your way home."

Discovery undocked as the two spacecraft soared 220 miles above China. Pilot Kevin Ford guided the shuttle in a lap around the station, essentially for picture-taking. Barratt said he and his station crewmates were glued to the windows watching "that magnificent spaceship that just flew under us."

The shuttle astronauts quickly got started on an evening of surveying to check for any signs of micrometeorite damage and make sure their ship can return safely.

"The mission is far from complete for us, but we couldn't be more pleased with how it's gone," said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the mission management team.

Discovery's departure ended nearly nine days of linked flight in which more than 18,000 pounds of equipment and experiments were dropped off. Astronaut Nicole Stott took up residence aboard the space station, replacing Timothy Kopra, homeward bound after being off the planet for nearly two months.

Kopra should have stayed longer at the orbiting complex, but had his mission cut short by launch delays to his shuttle ride up. Tuesday marked his 55th day in space.

Despite his abbreviated stay, Kopra was eager to be reunited with his wife and two children, and said he was looking forward to a sip of beer.

Also returning aboard Discovery: Buzz Lightyear. The 12-inch action figure spent 15 months at the space station as part of a NASA educational program. The doll will take part in a tickertape parade at Walt Disney World early next month.

Another piece of pop culture, though, remained on board the space station: a treadmill named after Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

Colbert had campaigned for naming rights to a yet-to-be-launched space station room, but NASA went with Tranquility for that and the comedian had to settle for the exercise machine that flew up on Discovery. The $5 million treadmill won't be assembled until later this month.

Six astronauts stayed behind to continue their own lengthy missions. Stott, the newest station occupant, will remain on board until November.

Mission Control, meanwhile, determined that the space station will not need to move out of the way of a piece of space junk that will pass within roughly 45 miles early Wednesday. It's a fragment from a Chinese satellite that was blasted by a missile two years ago.

It won't be long before another spacecraft drops by. Japan's brand new cargo ship will be launched Thursday and hook up to the space station one week later. Then at the beginning of October, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will arrive with a fresh station crew and a billionaire tourist, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte.

The space station is now 84 percent complete with a mass of more than 710,000 pounds. Six shuttle flights remain to wrap up construction. Atlantis is up next in November with a load of big spare parts.

NASA hopes to finish the station and fly the shuttle for the last time by the end of 2010 or early 2011. The future of human spaceflight, however, is unclear. A White House panel of independent space experts said in a report Tuesday that NASA cannot afford to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 as envisioned.


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Saturday, August 29, 2009

India Loses Contact With Its First Moon Mission

Sat Aug 29, 9:23 am ET

BANGALORE, India (Reuters) – India has lost all contact with an unmanned spacecraft conducting its first moon mission, the national space agency said on Saturday.

Communications with the Chandrayaan-1 craft broke down early on Saturday. "It is a serious problem. If we do not re-establish contact we will lose the spacecraft," said S. Satish, spokesman for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

The $79-million mission was launched amid national euphoria last October, putting India in the Asian space race alongside rival China, reinforcing its claim to be considered a global power.

A probe vehicle landed on the moon a month later and sent back images of the lunar surface.

But a critical sensor in the main craft, orbiting the moon, malfunctioned in July, raising fears that the two-year mission may have to be curtailed.

One of the mission's main aims was to look for Helium 3, an isotope which is very rare on earth but could be an energy source in the future in nuclear fusion.

ISRO has plans to send a manned mission to space in four years' time and eventually on to Mars.

China, U.S. May Cooperate On World's Biggest Telescope

Fri Aug 28, 11:59 am ET

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Astronomers from China and the United States may cooperate on building the world's largest telescope aimed at providing deeper insight into the very early stages of the universe, Xinhua news agency reported on Friday.

The Thirty-Meter-Telescope (TMT), conceived and headed by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), is expected to be completed in 2019, the official Chinese news agency said.

"It is a big undertaking and it will define the future of astronomy and astrophysics for about 60 or 70 years, so it will automatically involve a large international community," said Caltech President Jean-Lou Chameau in an interview with Xinhua.

Xinhua said the university and Caltech are talking to Chinese astronomers and scientists about cooperation on funding and technology, although no final decision has been made.

Canada and Japan have signed up to the project, which needs total financing of $1 billion, it said.

The telescope, with a mirror 30 meters in diameter, will have the sharpest view possible of the universe and will pick up images of galaxies and stars forming 13 billion light years away. It will be located on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Problem Cancels Moon Rocket Test Firing In Utah

By PAUL FOY, Associated Press Writer Paul Foy, Associated Press Writer – Thu Aug 27, 7:42 pm ET

PROMONTORY, Utah – A mechanical failure forced a NASA contractor on Thursday to call off the first test firing of the main part of NASA's powerful new moon rocket.

The test wasn't immediately rescheduled as officials scrambled to learn the root cause of the failure.

Alliant Techsystems Inc. called off the rocket burn with just 20 seconds left on the countdown clock. Operators cited failure of a power unit that drives hydraulic tilt controls for the rocket's nozzle. The rocket was anchored to the ground in a horizontal position for the test.

It was a setback for a carefully staged, $75 million event that drew thousands of onlookers. Alliant hoped the routine test would prove the performance of a new program for space exploration that, like the test rocket, may not fly because of NASA budget problems.

There was no indication anything was wrong with the rocket itself, which packs 1 million pounds of chemical propellant, enough to boost a 321-foot-long vehicle 190,000 feet into the atmosphere.

At a news conference in Utah, officials said the power unit for the nozzle controls, which steer a rocket in flight, was robbed of fuel, apparently because of a faulty valve.

That had potential implications for the space shuttle, which uses a nearly identical system. Officials in Utah notified their counterparts at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where NASA has had to twice delay the launch of Discovery for other reasons.

The Ares test problem could introduce a new delay in the launch of Discovery, previously set back because of weather and again because of a problem with a different shuttle fuel valve.

Shuttle managers said Thursday they will examine what went wrong with Ares and decide by early Friday whether to go ahead with a launch set for 11:59 p.m. EDT Friday.

In Utah, Alliant executives said their valve problem had never before emerged to scrub a rocket's test firing. Engineers could have fired the rocket anyway, but they halted the two-minute burn because they wouldn't have been able to test the agility of the rocket nozzle.

"This test is really important to the program, and it's a rare occurrence to have a problem with a booster," said Charlie Precourt, Alliant's general manager for launch systems, who was a four-time shuttle astronaut. "We should have this sorted out shortly."

Alex Prisko, a NASA manager for the Ares booster rocket, said the delay would add no more than a few million dollars to the $75 million cost of making and testing the rocket.

The Ares rocket is the centerpiece of the plan started by President George W. Bush to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020 and then on to Mars.

That plan, and all of NASA's human space program, is under review by a special independent panel, which will make recommendations to President Barack Obama on Monday. Some space experts expect the Ares rocket program, which has already cost $7 billion, will be modified or canceled.

But Thursday's glitch won't be a reason for that, experts said.

Problems, delays and outright failures are common in tests of new rockets and was nothing to worry about, said two former top NASA officials.

"The development of all launch vehicles is spotty and checkered at best," said Scott Hubbard, once director of NASA's Ames Research Center and now a professor of astronautics and aeronautics at Stanford University. "The fact that they are having troubles is not surprising at all."

Even after more than 125 flights, the space shuttle gets glitches like this that causes delays, Hubbard said. The shuttle Discovery was delayed twice this week.

Former NASA associate administrator Alan Stern, now associate vice president of Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio, said the company was prudent in not pushing with the test.

"This is a big deal, if it goes badly there are serious consequences," Stern said. But a delay in a test isn't necessarily a bad thing and shouldn't influence the White House's decision on whether to continue with the Bush moon program that features Ares rockets.

"This is a normal occurrence," Stern said.

AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C., contributed to this eport.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Asteroid Threat? Call the Space Lawyers

Asteroid Threat? Call the Space Lawyers

By Jeremy Hsu Staff Writer posted: 28 April 200911:54 am ET

Asteroids that might threaten Earth could pose a challenge beyond the obvious, if nations can't get their act together and figure out a unified plan of action.

There are currently no known space rocks on a collision course with Earth, but with ample evidence for past impacts, researchers say it's only a matter of time before one is found to be heading our way.

A swarm of political and legal issues bedevil any national or international response, whether it's responsibility for collateral damage from deflected asteroids or the possible outcry if one country decides to unilaterally nuke the space threat.

"The word 'unorganized' is spot on here," said Frans von der Dunk, space law expert at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "There is no such thing as even a platform for some level of coordination regarding possible responses — and, to be honest, some quarters very much would like it to remain that way."

Legal experts discussed such problems last week at a University of Nebraska-Lincoln conference titled "Near-Earth Objects: Risks, Responses and Opportunities-Legal Aspects." Their talks underscored how underprepared the international community is to deal with policy and legal fallout from a potential asteroid threat.

Saving Earth vs. scaring everybody
Many scientists have already brainstormed a variety of ways to deflect or destroy rogue asteroids, such as sending out spacecraft to nudge the space rock aside for a near-miss or simply blasting it apart. But some solutions may have different levels of appeal for various nations, especially when they involve launching potential weapons into space.

For instance, international concern surrounded a U.S. shoot-down of a failing satellitelast year, not to mention China's 2007 knockout of its own aging weather satellite with a ballistic missile. Both cases raised worries about the demonstration of potential missile defense systems or satellite-killer technologies.

"The international political reactions to the U.S. shooting down of its own satellites a year ago to prevent presumably dangerous and toxic fuel from reaching Earth only foreshadows what would happen if the U.S. would detonate nukes claiming to destroy an incoming asteroid," von der Dunk told

Other scenarios could highlight the question of international unity. A United Nations Security Council decision on a certain asteroid response would likely shield participating nations against any liabilities for collateral damage from a failed deflection or interception attempt, if the past serves as any guide — the U.S. and other coalition nations that kicked Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991 were not held responsible for damages to Iraq under Security Council mandate.

Depends on who'll get hit
Von der Dunk also posed the tricky question of what the international response would be if a smaller asteroid was headed for North Korea. The politically isolated nation attempted but failed to put a communications satellite into orbit in April, and would almost certainly require assistance from the U.S., Russia or China to deal with an asteroid threat.

Better international cooperation might also help in figuring out how to assess asteroid threats and release potentially scary info to the public.

"We have already seen scares raised by scientists ready to put out alarms out there, when either their data (fortunately quickly!) turned out to be considerably flawed, or later data allowed for a much more precise estimate of the risk — which turned out to be much lower," von der Dunk said.

He pointed to the case of the Apophis asteroid, in which astronomers initially gave a one-in-37 chance of it striking Earth in 2029, but later refined chances of collision to almost zero.
Experts at the conference agreed to keep pushing forward on legal issues, as well as focus on general education on the asteroid threat for policymakers. And they even discussed how private companies might join in the effort to monitor asteroids, potentially for the purpose of extracting mineral wealth from space rocks.

Von der Dunk heads next to the Planetary Defense Conference in Spain April 27-30, where he will present the conference recommendations to the International Academy of Astronautics and the European Space Agency.

Video - Asteroid Hunting
Video - Killer Comets and Ominous Asteroids
Images: Asteroids

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Death Valley Works to Preserve Night Sky

By ALICIA CHANG, AP Science Writer Alicia Chang, Ap Science Writer – Fri Dec 26, 8:25 am ET, AP

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – High atop Dante's View, overlooking sheets of salt flats and ribbons of sand dunes, night watcher Dan Duriscoe shone a laser beam at the North Star and steadied his digital camera at the starry heavens.

Duriscoe panned the camera toward the light factory of Las Vegas, 85 miles away but peeking out
like a white halo above the mountains in the eastern horizon.

"You can see the Luxor vertical beam," said Duriscoe, pointing to a time-exposure shot on his camera-connected laptop showing the Vegas Strip pyramid-shaped hotel's famous searchlight. "That's the brightest thing out there."

Acclaimed for its ink black skies, Death Valley, the hottest place in North America, also ranks among the nation's unspoiled stargazing spots. But the vista in recent years has grown blurry.

The glitzy neon glow from Las Vegas and its burgeoning bedroom communities is stealing stars from the park's eastern fringe. New research reveals light pollution from Vegas increased 61 percent between 2001 and 2007, making it appear brighter than the planet Venus on clear nights as seen from Dante's View.

Duriscoe, a soft-spoken, mustachioed physical scientist with the National Park Service, is part of a roving federal team of night owls whose job is to gaze up at the sky and monitor for light pollution in national parks.

"What is alarming to me is, what's going to happen three or four generations from now if this growth of outdoor lights continues?" he asked.

Amid such concerns, Death Valley, the largest national park in the Lower 48, has set an ambitious goal: It wants to be the first official dark-sky national park.

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been enthralled by the night sky's romantic mystique. Early seafarers relied on stars to steer their ships. Farmers looked toward the night sky for clues to plant and harvest crops. Ancient cultures spun mythologies from staring at the cosmos.

Civilization is also the chief reason why the night sky is vanishing in many corners. As the world grows, so do the number of lamp posts that sprout up like trees in sprawling subdivisions. Pass by Anywhere, USA and chances are you will see lighted shopping strips, twinkling auto malls and flashy billboards.

Today, it's estimated about one fifth of the world's population and more than two-thirds in the United States cannot see the Milky Way from their backyards.

Further, studies have shown exposure to artificial lights can interrupt animals' biological clocks and disrupt ecosystems. Migratory birds have been known to be confused by blinding lights on skyscrapers and fly smack into them. Last year, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization listed the graveyard shift, where workers toil under artificial lights, as a probable carcinogen.

The International Dark-Sky Association, an Arizona-based nonprofit whose slogan is "Carpe Noctem," has noticed an increased awareness about the perils of light pollution, but acknowledged there's a limit to promoting dark skies.

"I don't think you can get Paris to turn off the Eiffel Tower or persuade Times Square to turn off all of its lights," said Pete Strasser, the association's managing director.

The same could probably be said for Las Vegas, the sparkly desert playground where neon signs blend into the natural landscape.

"It's part of the whole ambiance. It's the selling point of Las Vegas," said Barbara Ginoulias, director of comprehensive planning for Clark County, Nev., where Vegas is located. Still, she added, "We're certainly cognizant of light pollution and we try to address it in the best way."

Ginoulias' department oversees unincorporated parts of Clark County, which are required to shield outdoor lights or cast the light downward. Next month, the county commission will consider an ordinance that would set lighting standards on digital billboards on Interstate 15 that runs along the Vegas Strip.

As for the main drag, Las Vegas Boulevard, Ginoulias said signs are reviewed case-by-case. Newer signs tend to be less flashy or not have the glaring white background, she said.

With no control over the Vegas glow, park rangers at Death Valley are looking inward to fix the light problem at home as they pursue their goal of becoming the first dark-sky national park.

To gain that distinction, the park must shield or change out two-thirds of its existing outdoor light fixtures. Death Valley has about 700 lights in its 3.3 million acres, including parking lot light poles, flood lights, fluorescent tubes and egress lights next to doors. Only about 200 lights meet the sky-friendly standard.

At the Furnace Creek Visitor Center located 190 feet below sea level, the pedestrian walkway leading to the front entrance is lined with overhead rows of fluorescent tubes under a canopy. From Dante's View at night, the visitor center appears as dancing white and blue dots.

"This is a really bright spot in the park," said Terry Baldino, chief of interpretation at Death Valley. "All the campgrounds have to share their night sky with the lights here. If we can reduce that, then we're going to improve their night stay."

The park has replaced some fixtures with tin can-shaped designs that focus light onto the ground instead of sideways or upward. Rangers are also debating whether to turn off outdoor lights in some cases.

"We're doing little by little," said Baldino.

So far, Utah's Gold Tier Natural Bridges National Monument and Pennsylvania's Cherry Springs State Park are the only two parks certified by the International Dark-Sky Association as dark-sky enclaves. This fall, the group gave a tentative OK to the Geauga Park District's Observatory Park 40 miles east of Cleveland for its work to preserve darkness over the observatory and nearby park land.

Despite Death Valley's lighting challenges, city dwellers from all over still flock to take in the view.

On a recent December evening, a naturalist couple from northern Los Angeles admired the star-studded sky from Zabriskie Point, a popular lookout just south of the visitor center.

"You don't see this in L.A.," said Karen Zimmerman, 49, who works at the Huntington Library, Art
Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. "You forget how many stars there are."

As Zimmerman spoke, a hazy glare could be seen from a distance.

Zimmerman's wife, Debra, 44, chimed in: "One of the things that concerns us is losing darkness. You just don't get darkness in Los Angeles. It's just nonexistent."

Back at Dante's View, a 5,475-foot panoramic viewpoint overlooking the glimmering valley floor, Duriscoe is working his second night taking sky brightness readings. The crescent moon, which formed a triangle with Jupiter and Venus earlier in the night, has dropped below the horizon.

The night is still — save for the occasional breeze and whirring noise of Duriscoe's camera mounted on a moving tripod that automatically takes 45 images, covering the entire sky. The images are then stitched together, and by subtracting the light by known stars, scientists create
fisheye and panoramic maps of light invasion.

Duriscoe has been skygazing at national parks for a living since 1999 and made the first sky brightness comparisons two years later. A self-described desert rat, Duriscoe excitedly points to the Orion, Aquarius, Pisces and Aries constellations. The Milky Way, which arches across the night sky, bleeds into the Vegas light dome 30 degrees above the horizon. The glow from the greater Los Angeles region forms a long, narrow band.

Skywatchers can theoretically see some 6,000 stars in the blackest and pristine skies of Death Valley. With light pollution from Vegas, scientists estimate about 2,500 stars are visible from Dante's View.

Advances in technology have enabled people to see the cosmos like never before. Take the Hubble Space Telescope, which has beamed stunning images of exotic galaxies and distant supernovae to people's computers. But Duriscoe noted that these onscreen images are just not the same as being out under the sky.

Sitting on the ledge of Dante's View, his legs stretched out and his back toward Vegas, Duriscoe pondered the shrinking sky.

"This is the real universe," he said, taking in the celestial light show until clouds moved in, drawing a curtain on the stars for the night.