New project explores humanity's severed link with the night sky

Posted by Eric Betz
on Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Star trails streak above The Wave in the Paria Canyon/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness. // courtesy of Harun Mehmedinovic
A few weeks ago, I sat on a park bench overlooking the Port of Milwaukee hoping to glimpse the aurorae borealis lighting up much of the Northern Hemisphere. The horizon was fuzzy, but a 30-second exposure image revealed a distinct green band arcing over the city skyline.

I drove for 35 minutes trying to find somewhere dark. When I hit Harrington Beach State Park and looked across Lake Michigan, curtains of green lights danced across the lake out to the eastern horizon — away from the city lights. It was a mesmerizing show. And sky glow meant no one in Milwaukee knew it was playing out overhead.

For most of humanity, the ancient link between civilization and the stars has been severed. There’s no longer any reason to look up. Light pollution has washed away the celestial sphere across most of the so-called developed world.

So, what will become of humanity’s next generation now that the night sky has become nearly invisible across much of the United States and Europe? That psychological question is central to a new project from filmmakers/night-sky photographers Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan.

Mehmedinovic grew up in Bosnia, and in between dodging the bullets of the Yugoslav Wars, he relished watching the Milky Way from his family’s rural home. So when he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in filmmaking, he was overwhelmed by the sky glow. He says the effect was “oppressive.” And despite a successful career, he eventually found himself shooting night-sky footage for a passion project.

That’s how he hooked up with Heffernan, another Los Angeles filmmaker who was doing time-lapse photography of the night sky. Together they set out in pursuit of America’s last remaining dark-skies.

Their collaboration project has since appeared in media outlets around the world — from the Weather Channel to Fox News, and from NPR to the BBC — inspiring millions to look up.

Now, they’ve launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to finish the effort and bring it to the masses in a more comprehensive form. They call their project “Skyglow.” They hope to raise $70,000 by May 10 to fund an image-heavy and educational book by the same name, highlighting the issue of light pollution. (You can view the rewards for contributing to Skyglow on the Kickstarter page.)

The book will be paired with a Blu-ray Disc filled with night-sky eye candy that explores humanity’s ancient and modern connection to the stars, and the realities of light pollution. As of this morning, about $20,000 of that has already been pledged. And Mehmedinovic has successfully funded photography projects through Kickstarter in the past.

Because both filmmakers come from the world of feature fiction, they say their goal is to show not only motion, but also emotion. The pair hopes that their footage will give viewers a sense of their place in the universe as they watch stars move across stunning landscapes.

“We obviously experiment a lot with the star field,” Mehmedinovic says. “It really illustrates that movement. [People] are just so removed. They don’t understand the Earth has its place in this giant universe. We want to get them to understand the context of it all.”

The Kickstarter funds will go to fees, equipment, shipping, and several months of work traveling across North America. Mehmedinovic says he doesn’t expect to make much money off the project, but he’d like to recoup some of the expense of travel and intensive shooting on location, which requires an arsenal of cameras. In addition to the footage they’ve already gathered, the Kickstarter will cover additional trips to archaeoastronomy sites and modern observatories, as well as an adventure north to capture the northern lights.

And if they get enough of a response to Skyglow, they’ll pursue making a large-scale documentary about light pollution using all the material they’ve gathered. Mehmedinovic believes that while climate change remains a politically contentious issue, light pollution might just have enough opponents to allow for some progress.

“Most people are advocates of the dark when they see it,” he says.

Eric Betz is associate editor of Astronomy magazine. His article “A new fight for the night,” will appear in the June issue and address the emerging threat of LED streetlights. Follow him on Twitter: @EricBetz.

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