Mission Nitelite: Rescuing the Night Sky

Latest update June 19, 2019 Started on July 1, 2016

We are losing the night sky. Stars are vanishing as city lights outshine them; it's damaging human and animal health. A band of scientists and students are joining forces to help rescue the night sky.


A Dark Night at the Little Red Schoolhouse

A dramatic retelling of data collection in the field by Adler Teen Meghan McCabe

It was a quiet evening when the Stratonaut team loaded into a mysterious white van at the Adler Planetarium with Potbelly sandwiches and strange devices called GoNets. The team was on a mission to the Little Red Schoolhouse to help researchers and wildlife enthusiasts understand how frogs react to light pollution. As the team arrived the sun was just starting to lower in the sky, it was time. Quickly the team gathered their GoNets, ipods, and tripods to record and observe the light pollution of the environment and frog calls.


The Stratonauts had to set up their equipment at five different points. Hiking and trudging through mud, shrubbery, and forest the team carefully activated the GoNets and started audio recording at each point. Then after night swept the sky and darkness fell the Stratonauts returned to each point one by one analyzing the frequency of frog calls at each point. At each point, new creatures confronted the Stratonauts. A tree frog stopped the team dead in their tracks, a snake swam past them in the farm pond, bullfrogs blocked their path, and great blue herons soared overhead.

alt As the team gazed over Long John Slough closely listening to the chatter of the tree frogs and the peeps of the Spring peepers, one of the Stratonauts, Meghan realized the amazing experience she had been gifted at the Adler. It was amazing how the team came together to take images of the sky, data of frog calls, and audio recording of the calls to deepen their understanding of light pollution and its effect of the world it invades.

Watch the time lapse below to view our data!


We're Not Throwing Away Our Shot

After MULTIPLE cancellations due to weather, we are going to try for our first ever balloon flight/light pollution imaging over Chicago this weekend! Our student team will be deploying their GONets- Ground Observation Network of cameras across the city (video of that in the next post) so we can capture the data from the sky, and be able to compare that view to that on the ground! We have not had a chance to fully test our altitude control system (see more about that in the last post) in the field, but have been running tests in the lab (see the video below).

Altitude Control System Lab Test

As our balloon payload floats up past the layers of the atmosphere, the pressure gets decreases! We have to put our tools through the same tests for them to operate properly at altitude (they also get much colder as well!).

A Blurry Image of Chicago at Night

As you can see from our predicted path over the city of Chicago at night, the data of light pollution is far from precise. Quite a blur actually! Notice our path as well, it will take us right over the city and just barely avoid the lake. This is the best chance we've had in a while, so we're going to take it!


We Got 99 Problems and Our Lift is One


By Dr. Geza Gyuk

As an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium, I’ve studied many different topics, ranging from what it was like billionths of a second after the Big Bang to how Black Holes eject powerful jets of matter at near the speed of light. Right now I’m interested in understanding how human-generated light spills out into the night sky and environment. Currently, Chicago is undergoing a massive transformation in how it lights the city, changing hundreds of thousands of streetlights from old-style low-pressure sodium to modern LEDs. I’m excited to find out how this change is affecting Chicago’s night skies!


Twisting Along

NITELite, our balloon missions to map light pollution in Chicago from the stratosphere, takes pictures using a camera suspended below the balloon. If you’ve ever watched something swinging or twisting back and forth on a string you probably can already see a problem. The slightest little bump will set our payload turning and gyrating! Trying to take a long exposure picture at night from a shaky platform doesn’t make for a good result... The video below shows what our balloon flights used to look like:

Luckily we figured out what was causing all the motion of the balloon. Basically, what was the “bump” that was keeping our balloon payload from being steady. It turns out it is the way the balloon has to push through the air as it rises. If the balloon is moving up through the air it is just the same as if the air was moving down across the balloon. Next time you hold the string of a balloon outside in the wind you’ll see just how much that moving air can make a balloon bounce and tremble.


A Still Place

So what to do? We are currently building a system to slow down and even stop the rising of the ballon. When the balloon is released there is enough helium in it to not only balance the pull of gravity, but also a bit more to make the balloon float up. Our Altitude Control System (ACS) fits in the nozzle of the balloon. At just the right height it opens up a value and lets the helium out of the balloon. Let enough helium out and the balloon stops rising. With the balloon stationary, there is no air moving across the balloon, the bumps and wiggles stop and after a couple of minutes the payload gets rock solid stable! Just take a look at the video below to see for yourself!

We’ve Got Issues

We are still working on the ACS to keep making it better. One problem we are working on is figuring out how the system will know when enough helium has been let out and the balloon is no longer rising. We don’t want to let too much helium out because then the balloon will start drifting down and we’ll have the same problem but in reverse. On the other hand, if we don’t let out enough helium then the balloon keeps rising and might eventually burst, possibly sending our equipment (and our hopes!) into Lake Michigan... This is a tricky problem, both because there is so little air high up and because when we have let out almost the right amount of helium the balloon is rising (or falling) only slowly. Measuring a slow motion is harder than measuring a fast motion because you have to wait a lot longer for the distance moved to be appreciable. We think we have this problem solved, but we won’t know for sure until our next test flight!

What Happens When We All Look Up

Our students are stitching together their images from their GONet deployments across the city of Chicago. Check their GPS coordinates near each photo, these are all from the same city! And no, although bright, none of them were taken during the day. That is all from excess nighttime light. We are working on deploying these GONets on the same night and time, and that info is soon to come. In the meantime, what do YOU notice below?

Photo Info

Each photo is taken with a two-second exposure, every five minutes. In these earlier GONet versions, the cameras are not calibrated properly for white balance so the color may shift more than it should. The light levels are accurate however!


Capturing Sky Glow in a Bottle

This is an animation from one of our first GONet (ground observation network) cameras capturing in 5 minute intervals the light levels of the city from the ground at night. Watch the moon go by, notice the level shift as clouds pass over. These are being deployed by Chicago Students across the city to build a data map of light pollution from their neighborhoods! All a part of the Adler Planetarium's Far Horizons Project: Mission NITELite. All in an effort to rescue our night sky! (watch the video below)

The Whole Picture

When we launch our high altitude balloon imaging system to capture the light pollution data from the sky, the two data sets will give us a light pollution map of unprecedented detail!

Student Engagement

The students pictured below are just a few of our Chicago Student Scientists documenting light pollution from their own neighborhoods to better understand Chicago's massive light pollution issue.


This Would Not Be Good

We had hoped to fly over the city tonight! With the help of our predictive track, we can estimate what weather patterns will do to our balloon and payload. With this launch site, we would be able to map the light pollution over Chicago perfectly, but take a look at our predicted landing zone...or should we say "splash zone!" Looks like we will be delayed for a couple of weeks! This will give us more time to test our altitude control system!


The Unboxing of GONet

These student's hard work is paying off! They are now ready to assemble their very own GONet's to bring to their neighborhood and monitor light pollution across the city from the ground. Watch their "unboxing" of their parts before they begin!

image-1 image-1 image-1

We Have Liftoff!


On the night March 16th the Far Horizons Team completed its final test flight for the NITELite Mission before its attempt to fly over Chicago. The team split into two teams, the launch and retrieval, loaded the vans and drove off for the flight. The teen participants all contributed to the launch that day, read their accounts of the flight below:

by Mikey (pictured below) - Adler Teen from Team Stratonauts

Launch Prep

"I was surprised by how much we did on site because I figured that we would just go out there, turn stuff on, inflate a balloon, and then let it fly away, but there were a lot of steps to complete before it could be even taken out of the building into the field. I surprised myself with my ability to help but also my inability to be helpful. When people asked for things I got them for them, and did it fast, but then I didn’t know what else to do to help. I was originally part of the group working with the box, and I put some batteries into it, gave a pencil to the balloon group, grabbed some small zip ties, and then began to take pictures of everything. I felt better when I was helping then when I was taking pictures because I felt like I was annoying people by sticking my lense all over the place, but I like taking pictures so it was okay.

Sugar, The Great Team Builder

alt A fun moment from the launch was when I was just going around asking people if they wanted some Sugar Babies (candy) because I just got to check in with people and it was funny. It was super great talking with everybody, especially when Carmen was asking about if they jumped while holding the balloon if it would take longer for them to hit the ground because of the balloon or not, and just hearing the facts and thoughts and opinions of the whole crew was hilarious and amazing.

The Launch

I loved when we finally got to launch because everybody was standing around it and were all ecstatic as it flew into the air. The launch was amazing. I wish I was there for more prep than just the part that occurred on the day of, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to. There was a lot of prep that others did and then there was a lot of stuff that was done at the launch too. In the end, it was an amazing experience.

Read the unique insights from the rest of our high flying team of teens here!

Mikey seen below prepping for launch in the hangar.


Teen Engineers and Educators

As we prepare for a test balloon flight this weekend, our team of Stratonauts works to assemble the ground observation network or GONet. These full sky cameras will capture an image up from the ground as we image down from our high altitude balloons 80,000 ft up. These two data sets together will create an incredibly high-resolution data set of Chicago's light pollution, the first of its kind!

Take a look below at these bright minds working hard to save dark skies!

What Makes Rosy so Rosy

altRosalia Lugo (Rosy) seen down right as a part of the Adler Planetarium's Community Science Department

Our recent undergraduate intern reflects on the inspiring work of Adler Teen Programs Manager Rosalia Lugo, her passionate students of YOLO, and the challenges he faces to overcome preconceptions to teach, and be taught.

by Marc Otero - Adler Planetarium/Northwestern Intern

Starting my internship with the Adler Planetarium’s Teen Programs, I did not know what to expect outside of the basic information relayed to me by Rosy and Kelly. I was going to be working with teens at World Language High School in Little Village, a school I was not familiar with in a community unlike those where I had found myself previously. I was going to be working the Youth Organization for Lights Out, headed by my supervisor Rosy Lugo, a program designed to help solve the light pollution crisis, a topic I was severely uninformed about. As a junior at Northwestern majoring in Social Policy coming from a privileged background, I wondered how it would be possible at all for me to integrate properly into the classroom?

alt The answer to that question became pretty evident after the first Youth Organization for Light Out session: Rosy. She’s the reason the Adler’s program locates itself in Little Village due to her relationship with the community. She’s the reason we place ourselves in World Language High School due to her relationship with the teaching staff. Most important of all, in my best judgment, she’s the reason why the students show up every Tuesday, despite all of the social pressures and distractions created in a high school setting.

First Day of YOLO

alt Her students filed in, one-by-one to the classroom giving her a huge hug on our first day there. Switching between English and Spanish, she thoughtfully welcomed them. With smiles beaming on their faces, Rosy introduced me to the class as I explained my background and what I would be doing with them over the next seven weeks. The respect shown to me by them so suddenly speaks to the character of our students but also speaks to what makes Rosy so Rosy.

By the second week of class, some of the students, seemingly the ones most comfortable with my presence, greeted me with a hug. After only an hour and a half together the previous week, I had not expected this welcome. In return, I felt myself more comfortable in the space, able to talk with them about their experiences. They shared with me the Latin American folklore of “La Llorona”, told to them as little children. In our class the week of Valentine’s day, one student brought in heart-shaped gifts for everyone in the program, even myself. The gift still sits on my bedside table. Last week, sitting in a corner of the classroom, we listened to music and worked diligently on the projects for YOLO’s upcoming event in Little Village, sharing stories, giggles, and insight the whole way.

Speaking Through the Language Barrier

Last Monday, YOLO started teaching two periods of freshman algebra at World Language High School. One period of the class is for ELL, English Language Learners. As part of my internship, I was going to teach these classes for two weeks with the assistance of Rosy. After the first day of class, I doubted my ability to properly communicate with this class of students as I could not get over the obvious language barrier; however, Rosy encouraged me to go out of my comfort zone and to teach both periods despite the barrier. Before class started yesterday, Rosy calmed me down as she was going to be translating for me whenever needed. She stood next to me as I engaged with the students in the ways she had taught me. Never did I have to ask them to be quiet. Never did I have to ask them to listen. Never did I feel like we were separated by the language barrier that could’ve divided us. By the end of the day, I couldn’t stop smiling. I had never felt like that before. I was overcome with joy. These freshmen students knew more than I had known a month ago when I began creating this presentation for them, something not easy to admit for a Northwestern student.


While I try not to exaggerate, simply by association with Rosy, I found myself welcomed into a community of intelligent people that may talk differently than me, but we all think the same.


Mission Nitelite Makes Headlines



Cameras in the Corn: Adler space balloon project aims to map Chicago light pollution

by Steve Johnson - Contact Reporter - Chicago Tribune

The reasons to plunge into an unknown farmer’s cornfield in central Illinois in the middle of the night are not innumerable.

  1. You really want some corn, and you’ve heard it’s better toward the center.

  2. You are in a Stephen King novel, and it’s not looking too good for your character.

  3. Your ball or other significant object has ended up in said field, and you’ve got to go get it.

It was the last reason that had me and a squad of Adler Planetarium science interns and volunteers taking the maize plunge one very early morning this summer.

We had flashlights, of course. We had GPS coordinates for the item we were seeking. We had a second radio device that was supposed to get louder as it got closer to the wayward thing. And we all had highway safety vests, just to make it clear we weren’t animals in need of being shot.

But still. Our target was the payload to a high-altitude balloon that, not too many minutes before, had been cruising over Kankakee, literally in the stratosphere.

Read the entire article on the Chicago Tribune site here!

First of its Kind


The data set that will be created from high-resolution maps taken from a stratospheric balloon, and the robust network of cameras imaging the night sky from below, will be a scientific first in light pollution mapping. The coordinated efforts between the two will create a deeper understanding of this issue and gather a greater data set to be used in the fight to change it.

GONet is Born!

Wonderful things are created when students and scientists put their heads together. Behold the first student-designed and assembled GONet camera (see images below). This RaspberryPi run all-sky camera will be one of many to make up the Ground Observation Network (scientists just love an acronym). See a test image taken from the device, and the students who are helping to build it from the Far Horizons' Stratonauts Program.

Community Science

Soon these students will share their files with the Open Explorer community to encourage other students and educators to build out the GONetwork!

In The Field

Chicago Teens are Changing the World

alt Teens of Chicago in the YOLO Program at Indiana Dunes taking readings with a Sky Quality Meter.

by Rosalía Lugo YOLO Facilitator, Teens Programs Manager & Dr. Geza Gyuk, Adler Planetarium Astronomer

Just how dark is the night?

That’s the question that is motivating two groups of teens in the Adler’s Teen Programs. The high schoolers of Youth Organization for Lights Out (YOLO) at World Language High School (WLHS) are approaching this question with their feet firmly rooted in their community, measuring the brightness of the night sky in the streets and parks of Little Village neighborhood. Students in the Far Horizons NITELite program are taking to the skies, where they intend to take an image of every streetlight and house light in Chicago—from 20 miles up!



YOLO motivates and empowers teens by exposing them to more in-depth knowledge about light pollution in the classroom. They become environmental activists in their own communities while earning service-learning hours towards their high school graduation requirement. They learn to collect and analyze sky brightness data using a luminance measurement device, Sky Quality Meters (SQMs), and Loss of the Night (LON)—a smartphone app that allows citizen scientists to be a part of a worldwide project.

The First Time Seeing A Dark Sky

To get a taste of a dark sky, the teens take a field trip to the nearest national lakeshore, Indiana Dunes. For many, this is the first time they see the night sky without the city lights blocking their view, and they are surprised by the difference, both in what they can see and what their instruments can measure. Through this scientific encounter, they make an emotional connection: imagine what a dark starry night could look like back home!

Read the rest of the story here, and listen to an inspiring testimonial of Yamilette, one of our inspiring YOLO students below!

Expedition Background

Saving the Stars

By Ken Walczak Senior Manager of Far Horizons


Since the dawn of humanity, and all the eternity preceding, life on Earth has ebbed and flowed with a natural cycle of day and night. This rhythm is instilled in our biology. A mere 140 years ago the first electric street light illuminated a Parisian street. Our night has never been the same. In just a little more than a century, the night has become a pale version of the day for most of us. But the living systems on Earth - us included - do not adapt so rapidly. What is the impact of such a radical change to our world?


We cannot understand a thing until we observe it, record it and watch it over time. Until then we are only taking a stab in the dark. You may have seen an image of the Earth at night dubbed The Black Marble. This global map of the light emitted by humanity at night was created in 2012 with data from a satellite orbiting the Earth. This was the first time we’ve been able to begin to put the impact of artificial light at night (ALAN) into context. Believe it or not, of all the thousands of satellites that are and have ever observed our Earth, this was the first to do it at night. Our scientific understanding of light pollution is less than a generation old. We’ve only now just begun to discover the impacts illuminating our nights has on us and our world.

Armed with this new data, we are now beginning to know the impacts of ALAN on our health, the health of the Earth’s ecosystems, the environment, and our capacity to gaze up and be an eyewitness to the Universe.

alt photo credit- Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

Our Mission

We launched Mission NITELite to forward our understanding of light pollution and help make a difference. The Far Horizons Program at the Adler Planetarium is building a team of students, volunteers and scientists to work together in hands-on exploration and research. For over 12 years we’ve launched student experiments to the edge of space on board high altitude balloons (HABs). We realized this platform - 100,000 ft above the Earth - offered a unique opportunity to collect light pollution data of unprecedented quality. We’re attempting the world’s first mission to map light pollution from the stratosphere. In conjunction with the NITELite HAB missions observing far above, we’re adding observations from below - where we live - in our own backyards. The GONet (Ground Observing Network) project aims to monitor the effect of light pollution from the ground with an array of cameras looking up and capturing the entire sky in one image. These instruments built and operated by teens, students and the public will broaden our knowledge of the effects light pollution has on our lives.

Environmental Justice

It doesn’t stop there, this data is new, this issue has grown so rapidly, all this knowledge is valuable in this young field of study. So our young scientists will also be teaching the world about their findings. Students from Little Village in Chicago in Adler run group called YOLO (Youth Organizing for Lights Out) are already joining forces with the Adler Planetarium to educate themselves on this issue so they can educate others. These students see this issue as one of environmental justice and are committed to teaching the next generation so they too can be empowered.

What is Next?

We are all losing the night sky. But unlike so many human-caused injuries to our environment, we can rescue our night sky. Far Horizons is building the means to monitor this issue in greater detail than ever before. With this data, communities can better understand this problem, scientists can study the issue with greater nuance, and we can all advocate for change. Once we begin mapping from the sky and monitoring from the ground, we plan to bring these methods to cities around the globe. We might be losing the night sky, but with these new efforts, we will not allow it to be lost.


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