Ten planning lessons from astronomical research sites

Dusk at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson

The following are ten planning lessons learned from visiting multiple astronomical research sites including the Kitt Peak National Observatory, the Very Large Array, Griffith Observatory, and similar facilities across the country. It also includes information learned from the International Dark-Sky Association; local, state, and national astronomy organizations; as well as from published/posted resources on astronomy and astronomical history. Peace!

Very Large Array near Magdalena, New Mexico
  • Sprawl, glare, noise and light trespass, as well as skyglow are major factors that harm astronomical research.
  • Radio “noise” emitted from cities via traffic, broadcasting, cell phones/towers, television antenna, microwave ovens, satellites, and other sources harms the ability of radio telescopes to detect faint radio waves from outer space.
  • Too many observatories have had their research capabilities impeded by skyglow from nearby cities. While their primary purpose can be revised to education, the loss of their research capabilities reduces the potential for breakthrough scientific discoveries.
  • Tucson and Flagstaff have been leaders in protecting the night sky due to the existence of important observatories being located nearby.
  • Locations where optical and/or radio observatories are established should consider zoning and land use restrictions that assure critical research can be continued unimpeded and to insure the significant investment in astronomical infrastructure is not lost unnecessarily.
  • While there have been numerous applications of dark-sky regulations within zoning regulations to protect the night sky, less effort has taken place in the planning profession to protect radio telescopes (antenna) from noise and static interference.
  • In 1956, West Virginia was the first place on the planet to adopt formal zoning regulations designed to protect radio astronomy for the Green Bank Observatory with adoption of the West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zoning Act. This law was later replaced by the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ), but the NRQZ only protects Green Bank. Greater protections should be established for other radio telescopes around the country and across the globe.
National Radio Quiet Zone – Source: en.wikipedia.org
  • Higher elevations are beneficial to astronomical research. As a result, communities where observatories and radio telescopes are situated or proposed should consider development limitations that preserve the integrity of these elevated locations while allowing for scientific study.
  • As some astronomical research sites have also become tourist attractions, planners should take into account the potential impacts derived from tourism-related activities at the site.
  • Planners should consider the potential for adaptive reuse of decertified astronomical research sites. Options for former professional observatories could include, but not be limited to: museums, historic sites, public use observatories, art galleries, weather stations, hiking shelters/way stations, hostels for hikers, visitor centers, ranger stations, wildfire lookouts, and many more. While options may be fewer for radio telescopes, that doesn’t mean they are any less important or historic for long-term presevation. The key is don’t overly limit the options by being too restrictive.
Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles


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