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Light pollution is diminishing our view of the majestic night sky. But national parks across the country are working to keep themselves in the dark — and teaching stargazers how they can help. 

It’s a good night for stargazing at Cherry Springs State Park, in a remote corner of north central Pennsylvania. Within an hour of sundown, thousands of glittering stars prick the charcoal sky, the Milky Way unfurls its gossamer veil, and Jupiter appears like a glowing golf ball through a binocular’s lens.

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A view of the city lights of Chicago
© Jim Richardson
Maxine Harrison, a retired deputy wildlife conservation officer and director of the park’s Dark-Sky Association, stands on the edge of a field ringed by pine trees and shines a green laser beam at a trio of winking stars that look close enough to swallow.

“This is Orion’s belt,” she says, as her husband, Chip Harrison, who manages the park and seven others, fiddles with a telescope nearby. “And this red star on Orion’s shoulder, that’s Betelgeuse. It’s pronounced ‘beetlejuice,’ like the movie.”

Surrounded by protected forest atop a 2,300-foot mountain about 60 miles from the nearest city, Cherry Springs is one of the best places in the country to glimpse the galaxies, earning a gold star from the International Dark-Sky Association. Hundreds of astronomers and stargazers flock to this secluded enclave for a celestial view that once inspired the Greeks and other ancients to weave tales about the constellations as a way of understanding a world they could not.

But that storied view is rapidly becoming lost as man’s overuse of artificial light is steadily obscuring the stars from our eyes, erasing the majesty of the night and denying entire generations the opportunity to ponder their role in the universe.

According to researchers with the department of astronomy at the University of Padova, Italy, it is estimated that more than two-thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their backyard. And if light pollution continues to increase at its current rate, it’s likely that no dark skies will remain in the continental U.S. by the year 2025, says Chad Moore, the leader of the National Parks Service’s Night Skies Team at Colorado State University. “If we don’t change what we’re doing, they’ll be gone,” Moore says. “It’s important that there be a place where mere mortals can go to be reminded of how things used to be and to behold the true wilderness of the night.”