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Lights out: Oracle State Park hosts star viewing party to celebrate Arizona’s dark skies
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Lights out: Oracle State Park hosts star viewing party to celebrate Arizona’s dark skies

  • As the sun sets, astronomy buffs set up their personal telescopes to see the stars at Oracle State Park, north of Tucson. 'Let’s get people out to enjoy their night skies. We get people visiting from all over the country,' amateur astronomer Mike Weasner says. 'Ever since that designation (by the International Dark-Sky Association) was approved, the interest in this park has gone off the charts.'
    Drake Presto/Cronkite NewsAs the sun sets, astronomy buffs set up their personal telescopes to see the stars at Oracle State Park, north of Tucson. 'Let’s get people out to enjoy their night skies. We get people visiting from all over the country,' amateur astronomer Mike Weasner says. 'Ever since that designation (by the International Dark-Sky Association) was approved, the interest in this park has gone off the charts.'
  • The Milky Way as seen at Oracle State Park north of Tucson on Sept. 24, 2022. One requirement to becoming an International Dark Sky Park is that the Milky Way has to be visible to the unaided eye. Other requirements include having public access to the park at night and managing light pollution. 'If you think of a state or national park, there are laws in place to protect these areas from development and encroachment,' says Ashley Wilson of the International Dark-Sky Association. 'We want those same types of protections to our dark sky parks, sanctuaries and reserves so that when we talk about conservation, it remains in place.'
    Drake Presto/Cronkite NewsThe Milky Way as seen at Oracle State Park north of Tucson on Sept. 24, 2022. One requirement to becoming an International Dark Sky Park is that the Milky Way has to be visible to the unaided eye. Other requirements include having public access to the park at night and managing light pollution. 'If you think of a state or national park, there are laws in place to protect these areas from development and encroachment,' says Ashley Wilson of the International Dark-Sky Association. 'We want those same types of protections to our dark sky parks, sanctuaries and reserves so that when we talk about conservation, it remains in place.'
  • Brian Harris looks through his 8-foot telescope at Oracle State Park. The Catalina Mountains shield the park from the city’s light glow, Harris says, and metro Phoenix is far enough away that its light doesn’t interfere.
    Drake Presto/Cronkite NewsBrian Harris looks through his 8-foot telescope at Oracle State Park. The Catalina Mountains shield the park from the city’s light glow, Harris says, and metro Phoenix is far enough away that its light doesn’t interfere.
  • A laser pointer is used to show constellations and other celestial objects at Oracle State Park north of Tucson on Sept. 24, 2022. According to a U.S. Department of Energy report, 'only a small fraction of light – well under 1% – generated by luminaires reaches an occupant’s eye.' Ashley Wilson of the International Dark-Sky Association says that means 99% of all outdoor human-made lighting is wasted and has no clear task.
    Drake Presto/Cronkite NewsA laser pointer is used to show constellations and other celestial objects at Oracle State Park north of Tucson on Sept. 24, 2022. According to a U.S. Department of Energy report, 'only a small fraction of light – well under 1% – generated by luminaires reaches an occupant’s eye.' Ashley Wilson of the International Dark-Sky Association says that means 99% of all outdoor human-made lighting is wasted and has no clear task.

Oracle State Park reopened in 2012, three years after the Great Recession shut it down. But the 4,000-acre park in the foothills north of Tucson was only open on Saturdays.

In early 2014, amateur astronomer Mike Weasner held a community stargazing party to push for recognition of the park by the International Dark-Sky Association. More than 350 people showed up, Weasner said, creating a mile-long traffic jam to get into the park and proving how popular astrotourism could be in Arizona.

In November that year, the Tucson-based association designated Oracle State Park as an International Dark Sky Park.

Since the 1960s, Tucson has been an important location for professional astronomical research, with such renowned laboratories as Steward Observatory, Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory and Kitt Peak National Observatory in the mountains and sky islands north of Tucson.

The International Dark-Sky Association, or IDA, was established in 1988 to protect the night sky from light pollution caused by Tucson’s steady growth. It has grown internationally to preserve dark skies and to educate about the costs of light pollution.

“Some astronomers noted that their astronomical observations at Kitt Peak National Observatory were being impacted from the growing light pollution from Tucson,” said Ashley Wilson, IDA director of conservation. “So they decided to encourage people to change their actions and their lighting to help deter the growth of this pollutant.”

As of this year, there are 19 certified Dark Sky Parks, places and communities in Arizona – and Oracle State Park was the fourth.

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