Arizona Sky Village’s residents have one rule: ‘Turn off your goddamned lights’


Nearly every house in this rural 450-acre development of stargazers is equipped with its own domed observatory, and outdoor lights are strictly forbidden. Does it also hold answers for combatting Americas problem with light pollution?

Take a nighttime drive into Arizona Sky Village, in a remote valley in south-east Arizona, and the only thing you can see clearly are the millions of stars twinkling overhead. Beyond the light show, the sky is a deep inky black, and the ground below is nothing but shadows. Dimmed car headlights might pick up spooked jackrabbits hopping through the desert brush, but the villages unlit houses are all but invisible in the darkness.

Thats the way the residents of this astronomy-loving community like it. The less light, the better their view of the universe.

Theres only one rule here, says Jack Newton, co-founder of the village: Turn off your goddamned lights.

Arizona Sky Village is home to a quirky community of stargazers. Shielded by the nearby Chiricahua mountains from urban sky glow scientists poetic name for light pollution nearly every house in the rural 450-acre development has its own domed observatory, complete with an array of telescopes.

Outdoor lights are strictly forbidden; blackout shades are required in every window of every house; and nighttime driving is discouraged. Most residents dont want to be bothered with driving at night anyway: theyre too busy scanning the skies.

Rick Benos house, and adjoining home observatories, are flanked by the towering Chiricahua mountains highest point 9,763ft in south-eastern Arizona. Photograph: Rick Beno

This is what we do, villager Frank Gilliland says cheerfully one starry night as he peers through the communitys biggest telescope, a 24-incher belonging to neighbor Rick Beno. At the moment, the scope is aimed at the Milky Way through an open hatch in the dome of Benos personal observatory, giving Gilliland a crystal-clear view of the Orion nebula, a remarkable 1,344 light years away.

The powerful instrument, Beno allows, is something a small college would be pretty darn proud of.

While Gilliland, a retired highway engineer, stands at the college-worthy scope, Beno is glued to a computer screen. A former software engineer, Beno likes to look at the heavens through a monitor that captures images of the stars in real time.

We all love astronomy, Beno says. But we all do it differently.

Beno and Gilliland are just two of several dozen astronomy aficionados spending a good chunk of their retirement holed up in expensive desert domes, their eyes trained on the far reaches of the universe.

Co-founder Newton, just shy of 75 years old, estimates he spends 90% of my time up in my dome. The work and the hours have paid off. Ive got three supernova discoveries just this year, Newton boasts, and in honor of his widely published deep sky photos, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) named an asteroid after him and his wife, Alice: 30840 Jackalice. Theres a problem with Newton, Alice says with a grin: too many celestial bodies already named for the Newton known as Isaac.

Most of the Sky Villagers had technical or scientific careers Dr Fred Espenak, a bona fide astronomy pro, is a retired Nasa astrophysicist known as Mr Eclipse but Newton spent his working life managing department stores in his native Canada. He always made time for the sky though, rambling miles into the countryside outside his hometown of Victoria.

He had a 25-inch telescope on a trailer, Alice Newton says. He hooked it up and hauled it out and had adventures in the middle of the night.

Emission Nebula in Aries. Photograph: Rick Beno

When Jack retired, the Newtons wanted a break from rainy Victoria and its murky skies. After a first retirement stop at a sky village in Florida, Newton and development partner Gene Turner came out to Arizona to scout dark places.

The isolated stretch of treeless desert they found outside Portal was perfect: it was sparsely populated, 150 miles distant from Tucson, the nearest city, and velvety black at night. Now some 21 households live there peaceably under Newtons Law: they cover up their windows and they turn off the goddam lights.

Jack got exactly what he wanted. Here, he says, we get 300 clear nights a year.

The world could use a few more Jack Newtons. Outside protected environs like Arizona Sky Village, light pollution has infected the industrialized world. In the US, some 99% of Americans live with perpetual sky glow, losing what the American Astronomical Society considers a universal right to starlight.

In Arizona, light pollution is a very serious concern, says astronomer Dr Lori Allen, director of the Kitt Peak national observatory, some 56 miles west of Tucson. No fewer than 28 professional observatories operating on mountaintops around the state run by the University of Arizona, the federal National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and even the Vatican, whose observatory is staffed by Jesuits.

High mountains, dry climate and clear skies have made the state a hotbed for sky science at least since the early days of the last century. Pluto now unceremoniously booted from the planet canon was discovered in 1930 by one Clyde Tombaugh, working out of Lowell Observatory in the northern Arizona town of Flagstaff, elevation 6,909ft. In 1958 the city, proud of that heritage, banned searchlights, then an up-and-coming outdoor advertising tool.

Its the first law in the world that we know of for protection of the night sky, says Dr John Barantine, an astronomer with the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit dedicated to making the night skies dark again. Searchlights were popular then and the city looked at them as a threat to the observatory.

Stargazers delight: Arizona skies at night. Photograph: Bob Wick/BLM/Creative Commons

Even Arizonas state government not known for progressive policies has restricted electronic billboards. The flashy placards are allowed only in several designated sites at least 75 miles from the venerated Grand Canyon and from the Kitt Peak and Mt Lemmon observatories. In 2012, the then governor Jan Brewer vetoed a 2012 attempt to light up more of the states highways with dancing electronic videos, declaring that she refused to put astronomy in jeopardy. As she noted, the industry contributes $250m annually to Arizonas economy and employs more than 3,300 people.

Kitt Peak national observatory, nestled on a picturesque 6,880ft mountain on the Tohono Oodham reservation, has benefited from the laws. Endowed with an array of multi-meter telescopes that Rick Beno might envy, the observatory is poised to embark on research that could change everything we know about deep space.

The US Department of Energy is spending $60m on equipment for a five-year survey to make the most detailed and accurate 3D map of the universe, says Allen, the Kitt Peak director. We still have a dark sky. But if we allow the sky to get brighter we will no longer attract those kinds of projects.

There are three simple things people can do to help, she adds. Shield their lights, dim their lights and use the right color bulbs.

If people dont care about astronomy, they might care about the health implications of light pollution. Cellphone and laptop users have already learned that their devices blue light leads to insomnia the light is telling them that the sun is up. And medical research is starting to point to more dire health effects. The evidence is not yet conclusive, Barantine says, but studies suggest that shifting the bodys natural light-dark rhythms may raise the risks of diabetes, obesity and even cancer.

So far, Barentine says, were not there yet in convincing people to curb their lights. But in Arizona Sky Village, he adds wistfully, the people are already practicing what we recommend.

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