Spectators look through an Explore Scientific telescope at Oracle State Park north of Tucson on Sept. 24, 2022. Explore Scientific hosted a weeklong star party and dark-sky event in Oracle. (Photo by Drake Presto/Cronkite News)
ORACLE – Oracle State Park reopened in 2012, three years after the Great Recession shut it down. But the 4,000-acre park in the foothills north of Tucson was only open on Saturdays.
In early 2014, amateur astronomer Mike Weasner held a community stargazing party to push for recognition of the park by the International Dark-Sky Association. More than 350 people showed up, Weasner said, creating a mile-long traffic jam to get into the park and proving how popular astrotourism could be in Arizona.
In November that year, the Tucson-based association designated Oracle State Park as an International Dark Sky Park.
Since the 1960s, Tucson has been an important location for professional astronomical research, with such renowned laboratories as Steward Observatory, Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory and Kitt Peak National Observatory in the mountains and sky islands north of Tucson.
The International Dark-Sky Association, or IDA, was established in 1988 to protect the night sky from light pollution caused by Tucson’s steady growth. It has grown internationally to preserve dark skies and to educate about the costs of light pollution.
“Some astronomers noted that their astronomical observations at Kitt Peak National Observatory were being impacted from the growing light pollution from Tucson,” said Ashley Wilson, IDA director of conservation. “So they decided to encourage people to change their actions and their lighting to help deter the growth of this pollutant.”
As of this year, there are 19 certified Dark Sky Parks, places and communities in Arizona – and Oracle State Park was the fourth.
Cronkite News visited the park to see why amateur astronomers love observing the cosmos there.
A laser pointer is used to show constellations and other celestial objects at Oracle State Park north of Tucson on Sept. 24, 2022. According to a U.S. Department of Energy report, “only a small fraction of light – well under 1% – generated by luminaires reaches an occupant’s eye.” Wilson says that means 99% of all outdoor human-made lighting is wasted and has no clear task.
As the sun sets, astronomy buffs set up their personal telescopes to see the stars at Oracle State Park. “Let’s get people out to enjoy their night skies. We get people visiting from all over the country,” amateur astronomer Weasner says. “Ever since that designation (by the International Dark-Sky Association) was approved, the interest in this park has gone off the charts.”
Brian Harris looks through his 8-foot telescope at Oracle State Park. The Catalina Mountains shield the park from the city’s light glow, Harris says, and metro Phoenix is far enough away that its light doesn’t interfere.
Visitors to Oracle State Park use a ladder to view Jupiter with an 8-foot telescope. “The biggest thing is having people have that connection,” Wilson says. “With more communities participating in the (International Dark Sky Places) program, and if we are reducing the scale of these light domes, we’ll bring back nature and that connection people are looking for.”
The Milky Way as seen at Oracle State Park. One requirement to becoming an International Dark Sky Park is that the Milky Way has to be visible to the unaided eye. Other requirements include having public access to the park at night and managing light pollution. “If you think of a state or national park, there are laws in place to protect these areas from development and encroachment,” Wilson says. “We want those same types of protections to our dark sky parks, sanctuaries and reserves so that when we talk about conservation, it remains in place.”