The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


Night sky—and then there were eight

—Charlie Christmann
When I last wrote this column, it was a sure bet that we were going to expand our solar system to twelve members, with the possibility of several more to be added in the near future. It was an exciting time for everyone interested in planetary science. Alas, the jubilation came to an abrupt end. Now, according to the 428 members of the International Astronomical Union who voted, out of a membership of 8,858, Pluto is no longer a planet. Then, again, neither is Xena, Gabriel, or Ceres. The final definition of “planet” (and its approval) was a bit of a surprise to everyone.

Many astronomers are objecting to the new definition of a planet. Some are not taking Pluto’s demotion lying down. Almost immediately, Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and Alan Stern, of the Space Science and Engineering Division of the Southwest Research Institute, posted a petition on-line stating, “We, as planetary scientists and astronomers, do not agree with the IAU's definition of a planet, nor will we use it. A better definition is needed." By early September, more than three hundred astronomers had signed the petition. But the IAU General Assembly, which sets policy, only meets every three years, so there is plenty of time to mount a protest and sign petitions.

Until then, you can call the former planet named Pluto by its new asteroid name—134340. Pluto's companion satellites, Charon, Nix, and Hydra, now have the designations 134340 I, 134340 II, and 134340 III. 2003 UB313, temporarily named Xena by its discoverers, is now number 136199, officially named Eris, and joins Ceres and Pluto as a “dwarf planet.”

The Loss of Our Night Sky

As more and more people move into the rural areas of our state, they bring with them their city ways, the worst of which is their need to light up the night. I have seen it too many times. New neighbors come to Placitas, where I live, and immediately turn on every outdoor light they have available. Some leave these lights on all night. Most finally see that their neighbors do not have exterior lights on and finally turn off most of them.

The New Mexico Night Sky Protection Act (74-12-1 to 74-12-10 NMSA 1978) helps some, but often people ignore it when installing lighting. Here are the highlights of the act:

• Section 4. All outdoor lighting fixtures installed after January 1, 2000 shall be shielded, except incandescent fixtures of one hundred fifty watts or less and other sources of seventy watts or less.

• Section 5a. In addition to other exemptions provided in the Night Sky Protection Act, an outdoor lighting fixture not meeting these provisions shall be allowed, if the fixture is extinguished by an automatic shutoff device between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and sunrise.

• Section 6. No new mercury vapor outdoor lighting fixtures shall be sold or installed after January 1, 2000.

Unfortunately, the act does little to actually preserve the view of the night sky for most observers. Incandescent spot lights are often 150 watts or less and can be a terrible annoyance when they shine into windows of neighbors or up into the sky, obscuring the stars. And there is no restriction on the number of these lights in a given area. Then, almost anything goes as long as the light automatically turns off at 11 p.m. Most normal non-astronomers who just enjoy looking at the night sky will not be up stargazing much past 11 p.m. anyway.

The one good section in this otherwise useless act is the ban on mercury vapor lights. Too bad those already installed are grandfathered.

This law needs to be updated and changed to actually protect the night sky and neighbors from the glare of lights in what should be very dark rural New Mexico. If you are not happy with the current law, you can help change it. Contact your state representatives and county commissioners. Tell them you want your dark sky back. Get involved now, before all of the sky is lost, please. Bright spotlights, unshielded floodlights, and vapor lights do not belong out here.

You can read the entire act at

For more information on protecting the night sky, see,,, and

The Planets and Moon

This month will be very bleak for planet watchers.

Mercury will be hiding near the Sun this month; however, you may catch a glimpse of this elusive planet low in the western sky about 7:00 p.m. if you are lucky. The easiest way to find Mercury will be to locate Jupiter from the 13th to the 20th. Mercury will be below it near the horizon. After that, Jupiter will be closer to the horizon. The crescent Moon joins the group on the 23rd.

Venus, too, is very close to the Sun and will be absent from view.

Mars is also in the Sun’s glare. Forget finding it this month.

Jupiter will be setting after the Sun in the evening sky. Enjoy it while you can. It is heading for a rendezvous with the Sun at the end of the month.

Saturn is for those with insomnia. It will rise in the east about 3:00 a.m. early in the month and about 1:30 a.m. late in the month. The Moon joins Saturn on the morning of the 16th.

The Moon is full on October 6th and new on the 22nd.

If you have a question, comment, or suggestion for Charlie, e-mail him at:


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