GALETON - Gaze up at the night sky in suburban or urban parts of Pennsylvania and you won't be seeing much. Glare from bright lights tends to diminish the visibility of stars and other heavenly bodies.
The view is much different at Cherry Springs State Park in rural Potter County. There, millions of stars, constellations can be seen in their brightest beauty of the night sky.
"When the sky is clear and the seeing is good, then people can actually see their shadow cast on the ground from starlight alone," says Maxine Harrison, director of the Cherry Park State Park Sky Fund and Association.
The park is atop a forested mountain, surrounded by more than 200,000 acres of Susquehannock State Forest land, minimal development and a low light population.
"(It) allows for an unobstructed and unpolluted view of the night sky. Tens of thousands of stars can be visible to the naked eye when conditions are right," Harrison said.
The park recently was recognized as a Dark Sky Park and given the gold standard from the International Dark Sky Association, which is the world's leader in the prevention of light pollution and dark sky preservation.
"We are the first state park in the United States to receive this designation," Harrison said. "Satellites traveling overhead are visible and even our sister galaxy, Andromeda, is visible to the naked eye.
"The Milky Way galaxy stretches from one side of the horizon to the other and, because we are located far enough south in latitude, the very heart of our Milky Way galaxy is visible from Cherry Springs. What to most people would look like the glow in the sky from a big city is actually a massive ball of stars located at the very center of the galaxy we live in."
According to Harrison, the park was designed as a dark sky preserve in 2000. The park recognized the dark sky night as a natural resource in the same way that forests, wildlife and waters are.
"They (the people who work for the park) are committed to the conservation and preservation of this resource and it is an integral part of the park's management plan," she said. "This concept of night sky preservation and light pollution reduction is spreading countrywide, with many communities expressing an interest in putting into place outdoor lighting ordinances to continue to preserve this resource."
The Dark Sky Fund and Association has been working with the park to help keep their star viewing as dark as possible.
The group is a non-profit that helps raise funds to make astronomy improvements at the park.
"We have raised thousands of dollars to make improvements in the park from buying overhead electric lines to installation of red and shielded lighting," Harrison said.
Red lighting preserves night vision and helps color filter out of the astrophotos astrophotography is a specialized type of photography of objects in the sky, such as the moon, sun, planets, stars and "deep sky objects" such as star clusters and galaxies.
Red light is used because it is at the lowest wave frequency. Light with low waves and low frequencies is easier to filter out of astrophotos. Red lighting often is used in the nocturnal mammal houses at zoos.
"For our eyes and the eyes of most nocturnal mammals ... we can still see in the dark using low red shades with the least amount of interference to our night vision," Harrison said. "The use of red goes back to the old darkroom days, when film was not that sensitive to red. We also have red sensitive rods in part of our eye that focuses directly out in front of us, so this allows us to read sky maps and computer screens and also to see directly in front of you when using a red filtered flashlight."
The association also has helped purchase and plant vegetative screening inside the park.
"The plantings allow us to screen the light coming from vehicles traveling along Route 44 (the Jersey Shore-Coudersport Pike), the East Fork and West Branch roads," Harrison said. "Older Norway spruce trees that had been planted by the CCC groups in the area had their lower branches removed to facilitate mowing before the park because a Dark Sky Park. Now spruce trees, scrubs and grass covered dirt mounds have been put in place to reduce the light from passing vehicles."
The outreach education programming is in partnership with the Potter County Education Council, NASA and Crystal Spheres: Adventures in Stargazing.
Stash Nawrocki, owner of Crystal Sphere, is a seasoned amateur astronomer and conducts the astronomy portion of the Music and Stars programs held in the summer.
"We have a one-hour concert, refreshments, then one hour of astronomy," Harrison said. "This is a paid event. All other public programs at Cherry Springs are free."
Most of the programming at the park is designed for the general public's learning experiences in the night sky. Programs cover a broad spectrum of subjects and vary with what season that night sky is in at the time and if the moon is visible or what features on it are prominent.
Thom Bemus of the National Public Observatory hosts the Stars-n-Parks programs held throughout the year on the Saturdays of the dark moon, which means little or no moon visible.
"Thom has been doing Stars-n-Parks at Cherry Springs for over eight years and received the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' "Volunteer of the Year" award in 2002," Harrison said.
The National Public Observatory used Cherry Springs as a prototype for its Stars-n-Parks program, she added.
Cherry Springs State Park continues to work on making itself one of the premiere astronomy parks in the eastern United States.
"There are also three astrodomes and a sky shed that are permanent fixtures at the park that are available for rent by any astronomer who wishes to come up to observe at Cherry Springs," Harrison said. "The park has an Astronomy Observation Field, as well as a Public Programming field to avoid any conflicts."
Amateur astronomers and astrophotographers can "be doing their thing on the Astronomy Observation Field while a public program is being conducted on the other side of the park. This is done so that vehicular lights and hand-held lights on the public side of the park do not cause any lighting interference for those observing or doing photography," she said.
It is hard for Harrison to describe the experience of stargazing at the park.
"It's sort hard to verbally describe this stuff because frankly ... there just are no words to describe how incredible the view of the sky is from the park," she said. "Most people can only see 25 or 50 stars from where they live and they don't even bother to look up anymore because there just isn't anything interesting to see up there.
"We have thrown away something that is so incredibly beautiful and awesome to behold ... just from careless lighting. (It is) a problem that is easy to fix and doesn't cost anything to get back," Harrison added.
"I tell people that I honestly believe that the view of the night sky at Cherry Springs is where the word 'awesome' comes from," she said, "but you have to see it for yourself to really know."