Starry, starry night: village promotes its “dark sky status” to let people see the heavens

Only about 500 stars can be seen in the urban sky, but at Sopotnia Wielka 3,000 and more dazzle down from the heavens. Polaris Opp

Christmas is the time when many Poles look to the sky, waiting for the “first star”—the sign that Jesus is born and also the trigger to start Christmas dinner. But with pollution in the form of light can often hide the star unless, that is, you happen to be in the small Beskidy village of Sopotnia Wielka.

The village has a special “protected dark sky” status, meaning that the views of the starry nights are uninterrupted, and that the heavenly vistas are spectacular and draw people to them from all over the world.

“Almost 2,000 people live here, we use lights and electricity normally but we manage to have the darkest sky in Poland,” Piotr Nawałkowski, from the Polaris Opp association, which promotes the study of astronomy, told TFN. “The place has the legal status of a dark sky preserve, which means artificial pollution is absolutely restricted.”

This means cracking down on light pollution, which can overpower the natural darkness of the night and obscure any view of the stars with the glow of streetlights and thousands of other manmade illuminations. 

The clarity of the village’s skies has even lured NASA astronaut George Zamka to the Sopotnia. Polaris Opp

Artificial light can also disrupt the natural day-night pattern, and can lead, apparently, to health problems for humans and damage to ecosystems and wildlife.  

These are, Nawałkowski told TFN, the most significant reasons why the Polaris association has made every effort to “save the sky” above the village.

“We have been able to hit the highest quality standards for a dark sky, which means we can have a legally protected dark sky,” explains Nawałkowski. “This is done by implementing special lighting, installing side fittings or shields on street lamps, eliminating redundant sources of artificial light and installing motion sensitive photo-cells on private outdoor lighting.”

Side fittings and shields on street lights helps reduce artificial light.Polaris Opp

Apart from Sopotnia there are some other places in Poland that offer a clear sky. The Sky Park in the Bieszczady Mountains or the Izerski Park of the Dark Sky (Izerski Park Ciemnego Nieba) in the Jizeria Mountains offer clear views of the night sky while other places such as the Białowieża or hidden areas at the Mazury also offer great views of the heavens.

But none of them are as good as Sobotnia’s sky despite the village being an everyday-working community during the day, says Nawałkowski. 

 Almost 2,000 people live here, we use lights and electricity normally but we manage to have the darkest sky in Poland, says Piotr Nawałkowski.Polaris Opp

This has lured star gazers from around the world. NASA astronaut George Zamka discovered tiny Sopotnia years ago, regarding it one of the best places on earth to view the heavens.  

Polaris Opp has built a viewing platform with its own telescope to help people monitor the stars, and organises school trips.

“We try to educate society about the advantages of a starry sky,” says Nawałkowski. “Most people don’t know that it’s part of nature just like the native fauna and flora. Astronomy is a science that should be developed in Poland. We also want to make people aware that proper lighting saves energy and even increases the comfort of travelling by night.”