A question of darkness


Back in the early 1980s, Louisburg, Kan., was a very small town sitting on a lonely stretch of U.S. 69 Highway about 30 miles south of metropolitan Kansas City. Most people in the city didn’t know much about Louisburg. What was known was that driving south to the town in Miami County at night meant dark — and depending upon cloud cover — starlit skies. Louisburg is still a small town, but the skies are getting brighter.

It was the darkness in the southern skies above Louisburg — southern night skies are important to astronomers because most objects appear on the southern horizon — that attracted The Kansas City Astronomical Society, a group of local amateur astronomers. Their Swope Park observatory was suffering under city-generated light pollution.

Nick Reuss, the observatory director, wasn’t around for the negotiations in 1982, but it is his impression that Louisburg was very happy at the time to have the observatory come to town. Eventually, the society reached a 10-year, $1-a-year lease agreement with Louisburg for a new observatory to be built on a one-acre tract in Lewis-Young City Park. Esther Young had donated 220 acres for the park in 1976. She stipulated that the park be used for “a public park and recreation area for the benefit of the general public and in particular the citizens of the city of Louisburg.”

With contributions of money and time from members of the society, various organizations, the city of Louisburg, and The Powell Family Foundation, the Powell Observatory was dedicated in 1985. For years, things went well for the observatory in its relationship with the city and in attracting people to Louisburg to view the skies.

“We have not told anyone what to do but have suggested ways to not only keep light pollution to a minimum…. We have been very successful in convincing new development to use responsible lighting, especially when they have built to our south,” says Reuss.

For example, shielded lights keep stray light from going up into the night sky and blocking the view of the stars. Although Powell’s 30-foot telescope is the largest and most sensitive in a five-state area, bright lights can inhibit viewing of the most faint objects.

Several weeks ago, Reuss attended a Louisburg City Council meeting trying to gain approval for a cement pad to be built next to the observatory to hold a smaller telescope that would be accessible to handicapped visitors. What he heard at the meeting came as a shock: The Louisburg Park Board was considering a proposal to allow a BMX (Bicycle Motocross) track to be built just south of the Powell Observatory property line.

“I was very surprised that the city had not told us of this, because they have always worked with us on everything that has gone into the park,” Reuss says. For example, several years ago the city decided to make further use of the park by building baseball and soccer fields and allowing a tractor pull once a year. “The parks board has always been very courteous, and we have had a standing agreement to have the sports field and concession lights turned off by 10 p.m.,” Reuss continues. “Besides, the fields are to the east and north of the observatory; the (BMX) track would be about 500 yards south.”

But Reuss has a concern besides lights glaring into the night sky. Dirt and dust flying off of the track during races and practice heats would threaten telescope optics and mirrors, he says. Those telescope parts are extremely sensitive and must be cleaned to ensure optimal use. The cleaning process eats away at the mirrors’ protective coating, which is necessary for the proper operation of the equipment. Also, “We have to dismantle the telescope and send it away to be re-coated now once every three to five years,” says Reuss. “That costs approximately $1,200, in addition to shipping and time we have lost because the observatory must be shut down for that period.”

The Astronomical Society operates the $300,000 observatory on about a $17,000 annual budget. Reuss says moving the observatory is not an option. “It would cost us approximately $200,000 to move the observatory, and we just don’t have the manpower to do it,” he says. Budget monies come from 340 family memberships to the society and through donations, public nights, and private parties held at Powell. Events have to be scheduled around soccer and baseball games held at the park. Also, there’s the weather factor. “If it is a cloudy night, we have to cancel,” Reuss says.

But Powell is more than just a telescope pointed toward the sky. The facility has become increasingly important to the worldwide astronomical community with its research into locating and confirming the existence of Near Earth Objects (NEOs). “The only difference between an amateur and a professional in this profession is that the professional is being paid for their work,” says Scott Kranz, president of the society.

Almost a year ago, the Astronomical Society decided to conduct serious research into locating and tracking unknown asteroids and comets. Because there are very few professional astronomers in the world and only about 110 amateurs conducting such research, every observatory involved in the effort is considered to have a significant effect on science. As a result of Powell’s involvement, the observatory helped in the discovery of 30 astronomical bodies and is currently ranked by NASA as 51st among a list of 265 observatories in the world. Powell is also a part of the Kansas Digital Observers Network (KDON), which includes three other observatories in Kansas, and as a network is ranked 9th in the world.

Currently, the society is applying for a NASA grant that would allow the facility to conduct the NEO research with federal funds, part of which would be designated to local schools. “We are very confident that we would get this grant because of our ranking and recognition,” says Reuss. “The grant would be along the lines of $100,000, which would in part allow us to help the schools in the area fund their own astronomical programs and research. I have been personally involved with the discovery of several of these asteroids and I know how exciting it is. Can you imagine how excited a student would be by being involved in this research as well?”

The developer of the BMX track, Eric Minor, is somewhat sympathetic to the concerns of the Astronomical Society and even wants to become a member. “When I first went to the parks board, I was initially proposing putting the track on a piece of land that is closer to the tractor pull site,” Minor says. “The park board came back to me with a site that I now know is adjacent to the observatory.” The park board first heard Minor’s proposal two months ago. He has been before the board twice.

Minor moved his family to Louisburg from Illinois about six months ago. He says he was involved in BMX as a young boy and quit when he was 17 because of injuries. But after moving to Louisburg, Minor and his family got reacquainted with BMX, along with other area families. Minor then started looking at putting a track in Louisburg, which would be the third in the Kansas City area. Sanctioned BMX tracks currently exist in Raytown and Blue Springs.

The American Bicycle Association (ABA) is the national organization that supports and sanctions BMX racing. Its Web site includes instructions on building a BMX track and securing land from county and city governments. Minor’s BMX track proposal includes the track, grandstands, fencing, lighting, and a PA system. He is proposing that races be held once a week, on Monday nights, during the racing season, which runs from spring to fall. The Web site recommends that developers have “a loader, tractor, five drum smooth roller, and 1,500 to 2,000 yards of dirt with lots of volunteers to help rake and shovel” to get the track started.

Louisburg Park Board officials referred all questions regarding the BMX track to Ted Hayden, city administrator. Hayden knew of the proposal and of the observatory’s concerns. Only about 75 acres of the park have been designated for development or farming, and about 40 acres have been set aside for conservation, leaving approximately 105 acres, of which the five-acre BMX track could occupy, says Hayden.

Interestingly, when asked whether stipulations outlined in Esther Young’s will concerning “recreational use” and definitions of public park land prevented the construction of a BMX track, Hayden said the definition was “very abstract” in the will and it could be contested that neither the track nor the observatory meets the original use of a park that the donator intended. An attorney contacted by PitchWeekly and given a copy of Young’s will agreed with Hayden.

Hayden adds that Louisburg is developing and times have changed since the observatory came to town. “I don’t think this is so much of a sports versus science issue as it is a development issue,” he says. “If this track isn’t developed, something else will be that will give them problems.” Hayden also says the observatory’s economic impact has never been determined and it is unclear exactly what economic gains the town would have from the BMX track, particularly if only one race is held per week during hours when other businesses are normally closed.

Minor says he would prefer to have another track site that isn’t as intrusive to the observatory and possibly wouldn’t limit his group’s ability to practice at night or have campgrounds in the future. Regardless of the eventual choice, Minor comes across as being flexible. “If the city approves the plan at that location, I would be willing to sign an agreement with the astronomical society, anything that would make them happy,” he says

Minor insists that racing more than one night a week wouldn’t become an issue because sanctioned races are based on point systems and tracks are not allowed to hold more races than other tracks because it would give their racers an unfair point advantage over other national racers. However, the ABA-BMX Web site states there are “well over 300 tracks in the United States alone, with new ones being built every week. Some of these tracks operate as many as two to three times per week.” Representatives from the ABA-BMX national organization did not return phone calls.

Minor says that if the town offers him only the land adjacent to the observatory, he will not back away from the project. “I have invested too much time and too much of my own money into this project now. I have a lot of supporters backing me and I don’t think this track will put the observatory out of business.”

He says he’s done research on light pollution and discounts that the development of the track would eventually mean an end to the observatory. However, Minor admits he has not researched the issue of dust harming the telescope equipment. “We used a packed clay and I suppose if the track was not maintained properly, it could cause dust to be flying around, but I would be out there watering the track down to ensure that doesn’t happen. I don’t think there would be any more dust than what is currently caused by farming in the area or the gravel road,” Minor says.

KDON members and founders of the Far Point Observatory in Eskridge, Kan., Graham Bell and Gary Hug disagree with Minor. Bell and Graham discovered the Hug-Bell comet and credit the Powell Observatory with the discovery.

“The dust from a dirt bike track poses an even more ominous problem than does the light. On a calm night, it may take hours for the dust to settle, so the 10 p.m. lights out may mean nothing. Keeping optics clean is not a trivial task under the best of conditions. Most attempts to clean an optical component result in destruction of the critical coating on the optics,” Hug and Bell wrote in a letter to the observatory.

Reuss may regret that the society has not done enough political schmoozing with Louisburg’s elected officials. In a letter to the editor of the Louisburg Herald, he writes, “We are all volunteers; this activity is what we choose to do with our free time. Most members of our club would prefer to first observe, then learn more and enhance our equipment, then share our knowledge with others, and then way, way down on the list, get involved in local politics.” Other society members appear afraid that local politicians and residents may just be tired of hearing them talk about background lighting, and with the second lease renewal coming up in two years, they worry that the society won’t get the renewal.

Reuss explains that members are not opposed to sports or development. “My kids are in all kinds of sports, and we have been able to work with increasing development for the past 18 years and could continue to do so if it is done responsibly,” he says. But not all sky watchers are that amicable.

The controversy has hit the Internet, generating support for the observatory from all over the world. The list of supporters is a who’s who among the astronomical community, including astronomers from Italy and Canada and professors from the University of California-Berkeley and Dartmouth College. Several of the comments connect the issue with the evolution controversy and science standards decisions made by the Kansas State Board of Education.

In one letter, Bob Mizon, fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and coordinator for the British Astronomical Association’s Campaign for Dark Skies, says, “Half of our environment is above the horizon, and that half has little protection in law. Administrators should be aware of the need to preserve a precious resource, the night sky, and that means to study it through observatories available to the public. What will we have contributed to the common good if the children of the late 21st century have to ask their parents, what were the stars?”

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