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Stephanie Sunata and Will Grunewald/MEDILL

Light pollution makes astronomy a challenge in cities such as Chicago.  Outdoor lighting is the major contributor to light pollution, which drowns out thousands of stars in the night sky.

Light pollution outshines the stars in Chicago

by Will Grunewald and Stephanie Sunata
Dec 11, 2012


Courtesy NASA

Chicago's lights as seen from space.     

Artificial light opened the door for many nighttime activities, but it closed the door for astronomy in large cities.

Chicago’s light pollution drowns out thousands of stars in the night sky and only a few dozen are visible, said Michael Smutko, the astrophysicist who manages Northwestern University’s Dearborn Observatory.

“We’re really limited to [seeing] only the very brightest stars,” he said. “And the shame is that people are actually losing touch with the night sky.”

Smutko said states in the U.S. southwest have instituted some light pollution regulations because they developed around major observatories, such as Kitt Peak in Tucson, Ariz. Chicago lacks such measures.

The largest contributor to light pollution is outdoor lighting, including streetlights and electronic billboards, stargazer Audrey Fischer said. Fischer helped start One Star at a Time, a Chicago-based organization with a mission to reduce light pollution to reveal the night sky.

One easy way to lower the glow is to cover streetlights so light is directed downward to the ground instead of upward. Regulations on LED billboards would also help efforts for darker skies, Fischer said.

Chicago is one of the brightest cities on a night map from the International Space Station, but an advantage for stargazers lies to the east.

“The lake is actually a real benefit to us,” Smutko said. “Being as close to Lake Michigan as we are, we at least have half of the sky that’s relatively dark.”

For more information about the Dearborn Observatory visit

For more information about One Star at a Time visit