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Pittsburgh Wants You To See Constellations When You Look Up At The Night Sky

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

When astronomer Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she noticed something big was missing from the night sky.

DIANE TURNSHEK: When I grew up in New England, you could just walk outside and look up and see the Milky Way. But when I arrived in Pittsburgh, the sky had started to decline in quality.

MARTINEZ: Still, she says, at the time, her students at Carnegie Mellon University were very familiar with the Milky Way. They knew about stars and constellations.

NOEL KING, HOST:

That is not the case anymore.

TURNSHEK: Forty years later, I have to explain what the Milky Way is and describe what it looks like, you know, show pictures. And they think those pictures are fake.

KING: Because of light pollution, major constellations can be totally invisible in cities.

MARTINEZ: The Pittsburgh City Council is now trying to do something about it with the help of scientists like Turnshek. It passed a dark sky ordinance last week to reduce light pollution.

KING: The city is going to replace streetlights with warm tone LED lights. And they're also going to install shields so that light doesn't travel up.

TURNSHEK: What we're trying to do is cut out the light at the blue end of the spectrum because blue light scatters more easily than red light in the atmosphere, right? That's why the sky is blue. So blue light scatters everywhere. It doesn't stay where you're lighting.

MARTINEZ: And to measure progress, she has some help from the higher-ups.

TURNSHEK: In August, the astronauts on the International Space Station took some pictures of Pittsburgh for me on a clear night. And that's the before shot. The astronauts are going to continue to take pictures of Pittsburgh, so we will have during pictures and after pictures.

MARTINEZ: Turnshek believes that as the skies get darker, more people will look up in wonder.

TURNSHEK: That means more people, more children will be able to see it. And the benefits of being connected to half of our universe, I can't overstate that. It's a spiritual thing. It's a feeling of connection with the universe.

MARTINEZ: She's hopeful it'll pique young people's interest in the stars above and encourage them to pursue subjects such as astronomy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.