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Live in Idaho? Look Up at the Nation's First Dark Sky Reserve

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Nighttime light pollution touches nearly 80 percent of the globe, according to researchers. But thanks to a group of concerned astronomers, the evening sky in central Idaho will stay starry for years to come. As the Associated Press reports, a roughly 1400-square-mile section of the Gem State will be protected as America’s very first “dark sky reserve,” with locals committed to combating artificial light use.

The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve—now the third largest in the world, and the twelfth of its kind across the world—will include the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Sun Valley, and Blaine, Custer and Elmore counties, according to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the group responsible for naming the protected area.

The IDA is an astronomer-founded nonprofit “that works to help stop light pollution and protect the night skies for present and future generations,” according to their website. In addition to advocacy and education work, the nonprofit works with everyone from legislators to lighting manufacturers to reduce urban light and protect swaths of sky.

To be named a Dark Sky Reserve by the IDA, an area must possess “an exceptional or distinguished quality of night sky, view of the stars, and nocturnal environment.” Committed local officials, landowners, and residents collaborate to regulate light levels and keep the night sky clear.

The night skies of rural Idaho are famously pristine, offering clear views of the Milky Way. In 1999, long before the region was officially named a Dark Sky Reserve, residents of the town of Ketchum, near Sun Valley, passed an ordinance to keep them that way, NPR reports. These kinds of rules don't simply benefit Idaho residents—they're for everyone who wants to enjoy one of the world's dwindling natural wonders, officials now say.

In a news release, Steve Botti, mayor of the Custer County town of Stanley, Idaho, said, "The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve was created not just for locals, but for all Idahoans and visitors from across the world who can come here and experience the primeval wonder of the starry night sky."

[h/t Associated Press]

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ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017
Look Closely—Every Point of Light in This Image Is a Galaxy
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017

Even if you stare closely at this seemingly grainy image, you might not be able to tell there’s anything to it besides visual noise. But it's not static—it's a sliver of the distant universe, and every little pinprick of light is a galaxy.

As Gizmodo reports, the image was produced by the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, a space-based infrared telescope that was launched into orbit in 2009 and was decommissioned in 2013. Created by Herschel’s Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) and Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS), it looks out from our galaxy toward the North Galactic Pole, a point that lies perpendicular to the Milky Way's spiral near the constellation Coma Berenices.

A close-up of a view of distant galaxies taken by the Herschel Space Observatory
ESA/Herschel/SPIRE; M. W. L. Smith et al 2017

Each point of light comes from the heat of dust grains between different stars in a galaxy. These areas of dust gave off this radiation billions of years before reaching Herschel. Around 1000 of those pins of light belong to galaxies in the Coma Cluster (named for Coma Berenices), one of the densest clusters of galaxies in the known universe.

The longer you look at it, the smaller you’ll feel.

[h/t Gizmodo]

Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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