For most of human history, mankind has been intimately aware of the heavens. The wonders of the night sky were there to see in all their glory any evening when the sky was clear. In much of the modern World that is no longer true. In our desire to drive out the darkness we have lost the stars. From the city or even a small town, all but the brightest stars are washed out by the artificial light. The official name of this is Light Pollution. Many people have never seen the Milky Way, and have no idea what a truly dark sky looks like. Drive an hour or so away from a city, and find an area a few miles from the nearest town and you can see many more stars than you will in town, but even these skies, as impressive as they may be, are not truly dark.
The International Dark-Sky Association is an organization dedicated to preserving the few areas where the night sky is free from light pollution. Two of the Texas State Parks, Enchanted Rock and Copper Breaks, have received gold-tier ratings from the International Dark-Sky Association. Along with the City of Dripping Springs and Big Bend National Park, this gives Texas four where the wonders of the night sky can be seen as they should be seen.
On the weekend of June 6 – 7, Ren was out of town with friends, the weather was nice, so I packed up my spotter scope and tent and headed out to Copper Breaks State Park for some stargazing. The park is about three hours Northwest of Fort Worth, a bit Southwest of Wichita Falls. It was just after 7:00 PM when I arrived, so I had a little over an hour of daylight left to setup camp.
I had arrived after the Park office was closed, the procedure is to find a camping site and either drop payment in the after hours box, or pay in the morning. There were no sites with electric hookup left so I headed toward the group camping / equestrian area as it was further back from the main area of the park. There was one family in the Group Camping area, and they were packing up to leave, so I decided to setup there. After they left I was pretty much the only person in sight.
I quickly got camp setup and settled in to watch the sunset. It’s not often that I take the time to sit back and watch a sunset, in a nice setting with no distractions.
Sunset was about 8:30, Twilight lasts for about an hour after the sun sets, and during that time the stars slowly begin to appear. First the brightest and then the dimmer ones. The difference between fair viewing and great viewing is how many of the dim stars become visible. One of the keys to good viewing is to be as far as possible from any lights. There are two reasons for this, first, any lights will reflect form haze and dust in the air and obscure the dimmer stars, and second, to see the dimmest stars you need your eyes to be fully adjusted to the dark, and any lights prevent that from happening. In this case I could see one campground that was lit up across the valley, and some other light in the woods a few miles away. It was easy to find a location that blocked both of those lights.
Venus and Jupiter were the first things that were visible in the West, and I spent some time looking at them through the spotter scope. To be honest that was not that big a deal as both of these are easily viewable even in the city. They are pretty much the brightest objects in the sky after the Sun and Moon.
As twilight ended it soon became clear that these were really good viewing conditions. I have been interested in astronomy since I was a kid and often try to find good skies for viewing, but these were the best I had ever seen. Even in a good location there is an area around the horizon where all but the brightest stars are washed out by light pollution from the surrounding towns. The better the site, the smaller this area is. Near a city this area pretty much covers the entire sky. At Copper Breaks I could see stars almost all the way to the horizon in nearly every direction.
Each season has it’s own gifts to offer the stargazer. In summer the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius are clearly visible in the south. These are interesting because the center of the Milky Way Galaxy lies in that direction and there are a lot of bright star clusters in that area. The Milky Way is also high in the sky in the summer. Often this is not that big an attraction because it requires the very darkest skies to be able to see the Milky Way. Despite several recent stargazing trips, I had not seen the Milky Way in decades. Here it was clearly visible.
As I took a break from stargazing I found that Copper Breaks had yet another wonder to offer. I saw the occasional firefly in my camp, but when I turned to look out over the valley I saw the entire valley lit up with thousands of fireflies. It looked like a river of lights. I had never seen anything like it. I tried to get a picture, but the camera on my phone was not able to capture it.
Growing up in a small town in Arkansas, fireflies were a part of my childhood. Over the years the firefly populations have seen a sharp decline. The reasons are not entirely clear, but pesticides and light pollution are suspected to be at least some of the problem. Many species of firefly use their lights to attract mates, and the presence of artificial lights is suspected to interfere with that.
Moonrise was about 12:30 AM. The presence of the moon was sufficient to washout the dimmer stars, and spoil my night vision, so the stargazing was pretty much over. I did watch the fireflies a bit longer then went to bed.
I set my tent up to face the east, because it had been even longer since I had watched a sunrise than it had been since I watched a sunset.
After breakfast I packed up camp, stopped by the Park office to pay for my site, and headed home.
Below are a few other pictures I took.