Astronomers estimate that if you look up at the night sky on a moon-less night, you can see as many as 10,000 stars with the naked eye. Or at least, you could before skyscrapers and street lights took over our landscape. Due to this light pollution, in much of the world, as few as 100 stars are visible when you look up—and the grand Milky Way is nowhere to be seen. For the first time in humanity’s 200,000 year history, we are cut off from the infinite cosmos.
But the solution to sourcing rare, dark sky may be as simple as…just turning off the lights again. Because in a project dubbed Seeing Stars, developed by designer/artist Daan Roosegaarde and UNESCO (the United Nations’ educational, scientific, and cultural arm), an entire city coordinated a unified lights-out for one night. And what they were suddenly able to see was extraordinary.
“We want to help bringing the ancient light of the stars back to the people,” explains Roosegaarde. “COVID-19 is making us more and more isolated. Collectively stargazing creates a much needed sense of connection, wonder and belonging.”
The event happened in November, in the Dutch city of Franeker. Roosegaarde had been inspired one night driving down a road, appreciating the glowing spectacle of lights, only to realize that the greater spectacle of the night sky was now invisible. After coming up with the idea to turn a city dark, he had to figure out which city would be right for the pitch.
“This was the easy part,” Roosegaarde says. As he already knew, the city of Franeker holds the world’s oldest working planetarium in the world, and a local fountain is dedicated to Franeker-born astronomer Jan Hendrik Oort. “Therefore it was the first city that I thought of. I drove down there to meet [the mayor], and she immediately said yes.”
But even in a town of just 12,000 people, arranging the event was no small matter. “Lights out, stars on. The concept is as simple as that,” says Roosegaarde. “However, turning off all non-essential lights in a city isn’t done in one simple switch. There is a lot to coordinate, and of course it was very important to not jeopardize safety. Everyone in the city center had to cooperate: from local authorities to shopkeepers and residents. That requires quite some [work], but it’s also what makes it such a connecting project.”
It’s unclear how many lights the city left on to guarantee visibility in emergencies. But Roosegaarde says there were no accidents. Instead, people stepped out of their homes into their streets, gazing up at the sky. They watched as the band of the Milky Way re-appeared, shooting stars streaked through the sky, and satellites floated by. Roosegaarde likens the sensation of looking up to visiting a Disney park.
Since the project debuted, Roosegaarde and UNESCO have fielded interest from other cities—and bigger cities—which has the team eyeing Leiden, Sydney, Venice, Stockholm, and Reykjavik for future events. But if you want to bring such an event to your town, you don’t necessarily need the U.N. on board to do so.
“Share the big dream with the community, that we all have the right to see the stars,” advises Roosegaarde. “It triggers wonder and a sense of connection. And then, start preparing very well: a simple idea is often the most difficult to execute.”