Energy & Environment

Fracking Industry Shedding Too Much Light On West Texas Observatory

The McDonald Observatory in West Texas is suddenly dealing with unwanted light.

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"OK guys. We're going to move so everybody watch here."

This is the 82-inch Otto Struve telescope, an instrument that draws researchers from around the world. Here's one, Jim Fowler.

"There's a certain group of us hard core visual astronomers just wanna look through an eyepiece, don't care about cameras, photographs, just wanna see it. This scope is the Holy Grail."

But since 2010, the exponential growth of oil and gas in the Permian Basin — a non-stop complex of wells and rigs across Texas and New Mexico — has generated tapestries of light reflecting off the sky.

Unchecked, the growing gleam could compromise research into dark energy that McDonald Observatory is famous for. Dark energy is the still undefined, unknown power behind the expansion of the Universe. But the observatory's Bill Wren says there's a way out. First you talk to players in the oil patch.

"It's not on their radar. I mean I wouldn't call it ignorance. There's no blip on the screen for them to ignore. It's not an issue they've even heard of before."

Wren says it's all about rethinking how companies use light.

"And if you think about where the light goes when it leaves the floodlight that aimed sideways, half the light goes up into the sky. So if they aim the floodlight down they can reclaim that wasted uplight, get half again as much light on their worksite and keep the skies darker overhead."

In 2011, the Texas legislature ordered seven counties around the observatory to mitigate light pollution. Astronomer Stephen Odawhan says the story of Mt Wilson Observatory in California speaks volumes.

"And that's where in fact the expansion of the Universe was discovered. And it's hardly used at all for optical astronomy anymore because Los Angeles is just so bright. "

The energy industry appears to at least be listening. Stacy Locke runs Pioneer Energy Services of San Antonio. Prompted by McDonald Observatory, Locke began checking the lights his workers use.

"One of the drillers had put a rag up to block the lighting because it was shining in his eyes. He couldn't see his instrument panels."

So Locke ordered an experiment. He put directional shade panels on the lights on one of his rigs.

"We'll end up with better lighting really than we would with the lighting that we had because it went to 360 degrees. So with the shading you can focus the light downward."

But doing the right thing isn't cheap. Adding shade panels costs up to 15 thousand dollars a rig. But Pioneer stands alone in an industry largely unaware about its potential effect on astronomy.

Bill Wren of McDonald Observatory says something beyond scientific research is at stake.

"I think the consequences for losing touch with the starry sky are beyond what we can imagine at this point in time. It's kinda cliche for me but what if Van Gogh were alive today. Would he be inspired to paint "Starry Night" again? I mean, could he even see the Milky Way from Saint Rémy in France? And the answer is no he couldn't. It's light polluted."

If a solution to bright skies is found, planned upgrades at the Observatory will allow 3-dimensional glimpses into the way the Universe was 11 billion years ago. That will add to our understanding of the origins of life. The challenge now is to get major players in the oil patch to care.

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