A remote campground in southwest New Mexico has recently become a sanctuary for star gazers seeking a pristine night sky at a time when the rapid spread of light pollution prevents more than half of the world's population from seeing the Milky Way.
The Cosmic Campground lies just off a two-lane highway in Catron County— New Mexico's largest and mostly rural county, where traffic lights don't exisit and the U.S. Census counts half a person per square mile.
"The thing of it is you can see a 360 here. You can see the last star of the Big Dipper come up over the edge of the Gila Wilderness," said Annie Grauer, a writer who's been married to an astromer for the last 40 years.
She and her husband Al Grauer were part of the team effort that created the Cosmic Campground. The couple traveled to a spot in the Gila National Forest just north of Glenwood and used special instruments to measure the darkness of the sky.
"We would come about once a week and we did that for about three months, four months," she said.
They sent the data to the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), a group dedicated to protecting places with little or no light pollution. IDA reviewed the data and in January designated the site as a dark sky sanctuary, only the second in the world. The other is in the Elqui Valley of northern Chile.
“This sky is so dark and there are so many stars up there it's actually lighter than you would imagine," Grauer said. "One night we were up here and…I was scared by my own shadow. I could see my shadow by starlight.”
On a recent summer afternoon a crowd of amateur astronomers and science nerds gathered at the Cosmic Campground to celebrate the sanctuary designation.
Next to the potluck table, Deborah Calkins and her son Michael wrapped red cellophane on a flashlight to help dim its intensity at night.
“We got our star wheels, we got our flashlights, I think we’re ready for sunset," she said.
Michael had just gotten a telescope for his 12th birthday. He’d wanted one ever since he saw the International Space Station fly over his house in Silver City, just an hour south of the campground.
“I like science and I'm interested in the stars," he said.
Michael is lucky. Scientists estimate that 83 percent of the world’s population lives under light-polluted skies. Among other things, people need darkness to help maintain a healthy hormonal balance. Animals such as nocturnal birds and sea turtles need it to migrate, reproduce and find food.
As more scientists recognize the benefit of limiting illumination, more places are working to reduce light pollution. France passed a law in 2013 that requires businesses to shut off their lights late at night. In October the IDA recognized the first Dark Sky Park in South Korea, its first designation in Asia. The Grand Canyon is currently redesigning thousands of light fixtures within the park to create a more natural nighttime experience for its visitors.
After sunset the Cosmic Campground lies beneath a twinkling canopy of stars. Al Grauer, the astronomer, set up his telescope and invited fellow campers to take a peek at Saturn.
One woman likened the ringed planet to a UFO.
Nearby, Cindy Neely, a retired nurse, helped her three-year-old grandaugther Veda Werber onto a stool so she could peer into the family telescope. Werber excitedly counted Jupiter's moons out loud.
For Grauer and his wife these are the moments that make their efforts worthwhile. They hope to spread the word about the Cosmic Campground to kids in urban areas via their website and a podcast called "Travelers in the Night."
“Astronomy has ignited kids’ imaginations and humans’ imagination from the beginning," Grauer said. "So what's the price of imagination? Where does the next generation of poets and scientists and engineers…come from?”