One small step against light pollution

July 2014

For a considerable time I have been noticing a white glow in the Betty’s Bay night sky. At first I thought that someone had installed an unshielded outside light while on holiday, then went back home and left it on to shine forever.

Heading back to the city one early morning after a night of stargazing, the bright illumination of the Caltex garage and specifically the Caltex sign stood in stark contrast to the rest of Betty’s Bay, which still lay blanketed in natural darkness. All I could think about for a day or two was the fuel station, which at night seemed so alien. One Caltex sign would not be able to obliterate the whole Milky Way but a few more highly illuminated hotspots could do severe damage to our natural night sky. Even though the chances of getting a response from such a giant company were most probably nil, I wrote an email.

You can imagine my surprise when I opened my inbox a few weeks later.

“Thank you for your email. Please accept our apologies for attending to your query at this late stage.We are currently working our way through a backlog as we have been inundated with queries over the last few weeks.Could you kindly provide your contact number so that we may contact you?”

Thus started my communication with the Customer Service Centre Chevron South Africa (PTY) LTD. My query was forwarded to the relevant department. I was updated regularly on the progress of the matter. “Please be advised we are still in the process of investigating and finalizing your query”

On 2 July 2014 I recieved a call and was put through to a manager, in charge of a certain cluster of service stations, who had this to say:
1. The erf on which the service station is located had been zoned for the purpose of running a fuel station. They were granted all the legal rights from the municipality
2. The illumination is in accordance with national regulations
3. The signage is in accordance with national regulations
4. No, they do not differentiate between urban, rural or sensitive fynbos areas when it comes to the amount of illumination used.
5. The service station is there to stay ( which of course I had not queried because lets face it, I need fuel as well as the Milky Way)

Well, at least someone had taken the time to attend to my query and had actually responded. “Yes I understand. Thank you for taking the time….” I was about to say goodbye….

“But what we will do……The sign has recently been damaged by the wind. During repairs we will remove the sensor that automatically switches on the light at nightfall. The service station closes at 6pm. The light will be switched off then. Please go and remind the retailer if they forget to switch off the sign. The downlights over the pumps will, unfortunately, have to remain on throughout the night.”

Caltex will be switching off its sign! If each of us would switch off, use motion sensors or at least shield outdoor lights, the natural night sky could be preserved for generations to come and not become the legend of Betty’s Bay and its Milky Way.



Residential lighting guidelines


June 2014

Saturn-beforeMy excitement about an occultation which was to occur on 10 June 2014 from 19:15 to 20:16 was met by frowns from a few people who most probably thought that I had plans to slay a black cat. Let me begin by defining the word occult.
Dealing with supernatural influences or phenomena, beyond the realm of human comprehension, inscrutable or available only to the initiate are the more common associations. However, occult also means hidden from view and knowledge of the hidden.
Before I am forever labelled a witch, let me assure you that my excitement was all about an occultation of an astronomical object and nothing sinister.

After days of heavy rain in the Western Cape, the skies cleared as a gibbous Moon glided by while the more distant Saturn disappeared and was completely out of sight for an hour or so. Even though I knew I had time to spare, I braved the cold and kept looking through my telescope, fiddling and adjusting my camera. The moments of disappearance and reappearance, when two astronomical bodies seem to be touching one another, are the most thrilling. With Saturn, even more so because first the rings “touch”, followed by the planet. For just a few seconds Saturn and its rings seem to be halved.

I have often witnessed bright stars being occulted by the Moon. On the other hand, occultations of planets by the Moon are not as frequent but during every year there’s bound to be at least one to observe from somewhere on Earth.

Occultations of one planet by another are rare. The last time such event occurred was on 3 January 1818 when Venus occulted Jupiter. The next occultation involving planets will occur on 22 November 2065 when the same two planets will have a new generation of astrologers in a flurry.

It is also possible for two planets to be occulted at the same time. Such events are extremely rare. I could only find one reference to such an event. On 23 April 1998 the Moon occulted Venus and Jupiter simultaneously for observers on Ascension Island.

Since Aristotle recorded the Moon covering Mars way back in 357 B.C, occultations have been observed, not only for the sake of wonder, but mainly for scientific purposes. Uranus’s rings were discovered when the planet occulted a star in 1977.

Even with occultation excitement abating, The Lord of the Rings will still be prominent in our night skies for the next few months to wow observers.