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Mission to save the dark skies

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‘Galaxy girl’ Carol Redford has embarked on a stellar mission to save the dark skies of the Wheatbelt from an invasion of artificial light! While it may sound seriously science-fictionesque Carol’s intergalactic mission is not that far-fetched – and her project is gaining momentum throughout the region at light speed.

Carol explains, “WA has an incredible asset in the dark night sky. With a few simple actions, we can protect this asset to become a world-class destination for stargazing and astronomy-related pursuits.”

Carol says our unique dark sky is the envy of stargazers worldwide.

“It’s sad but true that more than 80% of the world’s population lives under light-polluted skies. In the United States and Europe, 99% experience skyglow at night.
“Many of us have had visitors to our country homes who are overwhelmed by the brilliance of the stars – it’s something we take for granted!”

With WA’s comparatively tiny regional population spread out over hundreds of small country towns, we have naturally low levels of light pollution throughout the state, making for ideal starwatching. Even the Wheatbelt’s low rainfall is an advantage for stargazing – as cloud cover and rain are skywatching dampeners.

“Being in the Southern Hemisphere also means that the band of the Milky Way Galaxy is directly overhead,” says Carol, “I’ve been asking myself, ‘How can this incredible natural asset be protected for future generations to come?’”

Carol’s idea has taken the formation of Astrotourism Towns WA, a project that not only combines her passion for stargazing but her qualifications and vast experience in marketing, regional development and tourism.

Nine Local Government Authorities have jumped aboard the Astrotourism Towns project so far. The Shires of Carnamah, Dandaragan, Mingenew, Moora, Morawa, Perenjori, Three Springs and Wongan Hills-Ballidu and the City of Greater Geraldton have already held a number of free community stargazing evenings where Carol has had the opportunity to share her passion for the stars and engage community interest.

In July, with support through the Australian Government’s Building Better Regions Fund, six more Local Governments will be part of the project. These are the Shires of Chittering, Coorow, Lake Grace, Northam, Wagin and West Arthur.

“I’m working with these communities to roll out the ‘welcome mat’ for visitors to experience world-class stargazing, Aboriginal Astronomy culture and heritage, and to use telescopes and cameras for astronomy-related activities,” said Carol.

As well as holding free stargazing evenings, Carol is working with locals to choose astrophotography hot spots and observing sites where visitors will be welcome to bring telescopes and binoculars to enjoy stargazing.

Carol has been thrilled, and somewhat surprised by the enthusiasm her project has generated.

“It’s amazing how quickly people have grasped the opportunities this may bring for growing their regional towns,” says Carol, “There is so much potential for the growth of support businesses like accommodation, food – even telescope hire!”

Ultimately, she also hopes the teaching of Aboriginal astronomy will be led by local elders.
“Aboriginal people have been using the night sky as a guide for tens of thousands of years. Ultimately, she also hopes the teaching of Aboriginal astronomy will be led by local elders. Aboriginal people have a deep understanding of the night sky and use it as an indicator of food sources, seasonality and to guide travel and mark time,”“They have a wealth of information and dreamtime stories to be shared.”

The towns involved in the project will also help protect and preserve our dark skies for the future. Simple actions like pointing street lights downwards and using warm colour lighting can help combat the invasion of light pollution.
“The first step is to educate and create awareness,” says Carol, “In the future is would be great to see simple changes to statutory planning to ensure our dark skies are preserved for generations to come.”

With all shires having to make the transition to LED street lighting in coming years, Carol hopes many of the changes will be implemented at the same time.

Carol’s fascination with the night sky began when in 2007 she and business partner Donna Vanzetti bought the Gingin Observatory. It was a huge learning curve for Carol whose last encounter with science was high school physics. However, her lack of previous knowledge became an advantage – and her point of difference has been translating the science-speak and making the concepts more accessible to beginners.
In 2013 Carol began the Stargazers Club WA so she could continue sharing her passion for stargazing and astronomy. She has helps hundreds of people learn more about the night sky, astrophotography and the wonders of the universe.

“Children in particular seem to grasp the concepts easily – a child’s mind is still flexible and open to new ideas,” she explains.

The amazing thing about astronomy is that it’s still the great unknown. Our childrens’ visions of intergalactic space travel and moon missions may one day be reality. And perhaps those discoveries will be germinated right here in our region.

“Western Australia’s night sky is an asset worth protecting. Communities around WA are working to keep the night sky as dark as possible by reducing light pollution. While we’re protecting our night sky, we’re inviting visitors from around the world to share its beauty. At the same time, we’re growing our understanding of how stargazing brings people together.” said Carol.

Exciting times ahead indeed. Watch this space.