Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum from Martin T Brown

  The main points I wish to highlight are:

    —Low pressure sodium (LPS) is the astronomers' first choice of light source.

    —Full cut off fixtures are essential whatever light source is used.

    —The UK already has a large installed base of LPS lamps but in wasteful fittings.

    —Much light (up to 30%) is presently wasted directly into the skies.

    —Simple improvements would save energy and help astronomers.

    —Dreadful external lighting fixtures are still in common use in the UK.

    —A code is needed to educate installers and users how to use lighting properly.

  I believe that the problem of badly designed street lighting and security lighting could be quantified and measured in such a way as to be legally enforceable.

  I am a long-time amateur astronomer and former radio astronomer. I have an interest in control of light pollution from the perspective of amateur astronomers and in filters and luminaire designs that can help to reduce the problem. I should declare an interest here, my own Nonad photographic filter is one such doped glass filter, Baader planetarium also sell a Neodymium filter effective against LPS. Orion Optics (UK) make a visual Sodium light interference filter effective against mixed HPS/LPS lighting.

  The questions that I feel able to address are as follows. I will include some background material (not printed) as well as web references to material in US light pollution statutes that may provide a useful model.

Impact of light pollution on UK astronomy?

  It is now difficult to get away from light pollution anywhere in the UK. The level of street lighting and the increasing move to illuminate all road junctions on major roads makes it very difficult to find truly dark skies. Long photographic exposures even in good conditions suffer from scattered light from nearby cities up to 20 miles away (or more). Professional optical astronomy is now limited to doing experiments that are possible under light polluted conditions and testing equipment for use overseas.

  Light pollution is itself perhaps something of a misnomer. "Wasted light" would be a less emotive description—light that goes directly into the sky would be valuable if it were reflected downwards.

Is it measurable in such a way as to be legally enforceable?

  It should be possible to measure and in many cases determine by simple visual inspection whether or not a particular design of luminaire will be sky friendly or not. The vast majority of the UK street lamps are by design sending a significant proportion of their light skywards. This is inefficient.

  It could even be partly resolved by retro fitting relatively simple designs of reflector into old lamps. The simplest designs of reflector need be no more complex or heavy than aluminium pie trays.

  There are some clearly measurable properties of luminaires.

  1.  Power consumption.

  2.  Total light output.

  3.  Proportion that is wasted.

  4.  Spectrum of the light.

  The aims for astronomy are:

  1.  Use the minimum amount of light needed for the task in hand.

  2.  Minimise the amount of light that goes upwards above the horizontal.

  3.  Use only light which can be relatively easily filtered out at the telescope.

  A lot of commercial properties are significantly over lit because it is believed (perhaps correctly) that the glare of bright lights attracts passing trade. Many people find it hard to distinguish between good lighting that provides good night visibility and bad lighting that dazzles with glare.

  Several US regions have recommendations and in some cases enforcement of good lighting codes. One such example is Bradford, Connecticut (ref 2). It is fairly obvious why full cut-off is preferable.

  A problem in the UK is that there are fewer full cut-off designs available compared to other European countries. This can be easily confirmed by looking down from an aircraft in the UK. The dazzling bright lights seen along the streets are caused by direct line of sight to the lamp. In a region with full cut-off lighting you will instead see only the diffuse pools of light under the streetlamp.

  The third option is to choose a type of light that astronomers can easily filter out. This is possible provided that nearly monochromatic light source is used. The most common one being the familiar orange-yellow low pressure sodium lamps (about the most energy efficient light source).

  Areas near to observatories should use a combination of lower ambient light levels (perhaps even time- switched to off for some period like 1am-3am), and shielded optical design full cut-off luminaries fitted with low pressure sodium lights. This is about as good as you can hope for.

  In the vicinity of optical observatories additional measures to ban poorly designed and installed lighting may also be needed. San Diego, Tucson and a few other US cities near to major optical observatories will provide a model for what may be achieved and what sort of opposition may be encountered. The US still uses mostly mercury street lighting and opposition to low pressure sodium lights is a lot more vociferous because they are associated mainly with junkyards.

  US recommendations and solutions may not always be right for the UK though—because the bulk of the US street lighting installed base are old mercury lamps (about half the energy efficiency). La Palma is perhaps a model more relevant to UK experience with a large installed base of LPS and professional observatories—Chris Benn has published some work on spectroscopy at the ING and the influence of light pollution on the island. Photographs there show the improvement obtained by switching to shielded street lighting with before and after shots of some street scenes (Ref 3).

  The minimum aim should be that all new luminaries used for routine street lighting of whatever type should conform to certain minimum standards for stray light. I would suggest full cut-off designs with a tolerance of about 10 degrees extra margin to allow for mechanical installation misalignment.

  This treatment is simplistic but serves to illustrate an astronomer's point of view.

  Targets for a well-designed full cut-off luminaire:

    No light goes upwards

    Lamp is fully shielded

    Simple plain glass cover

    Tolerant of small installation errors

  Uniformity of illumination along the road

    Shaped reflectors

    Maximise ratio of pole separation to height.

    Minimise power consumption

  Physical size minimised


    Wind loading

  Principal types of lamp and characteristics of a typical 100W lamp (ref 1).

Colour Temp/K
Tungsten halogen
Line +
Blue White
Metal Halide/
Peachy white
Narrow line

  * Colour temperature is imprecise, the emission characteristics are not truly like a hot black body.

  In the UK it is likely that there will be very few mercury lamps and the vast majority of street illumination will be from HPS and LPS with a few HID lamps in prime regions of city centres.

  Factors for and against HPS vs. LPS taking a typical 100W lamp—values approximate (Ref .1).

External envelope size/mm
50 x200
50 x 600
Discharge tube size/mm
10 x 150
10 x 1000 (folded)
Efficiency lumen/W
Lifetime MTBF/hrs
Light quality
Peachy white
Monochromatic orange yellow 590nm
Compact easily focused beam
Large tube diffuse soft shadows.
Not easily focused

  The HPS lamp has become the favourite for most new lighting schemes in the UK. Some locations do use full cut-off luminaries, but by no means all of them. This is regrettable as HPS light is fairly broadband and so cannot be adequately filtered out at the telescope.

  Here is a rough model of the contributions to light pollution for HPS and LPS with and without filters:

HPS full cut-off
LPS full cut-off
Reflected up
Net skywards
Filter factor
Net after filter

  These numbers are of necessity approximate and the light reflected upwards depends on the reflectivity of the road surface (typically about 8%), grass (10%) and pavement (typically 15%). Light concrete roads will be worse and very dark bitumen rich roads will be better. Snow is disastrous but rare.

  The numbers may be modified in compact urban areas because light escaping directly from the top of a lamppost is virtually unimpeded, whereas some of the light reflected from the street level is shaded from the sky by buildings and is therefore of decreased intensity.

  Filters are assumed to be the optimal ones available to amateurs (Orion UK for HPS and Nonad or Baader for LPS). Professional optical observatories may be able to do slightly better.

  Few UK amateur astronomers are aware how easily the LPS light can be filtered. (Plates 1 and 4) (not printed).

  The standard 1960's LPS street lamp is not much better with ribbed glass and a crude fixture that allows around 30% of the light to go directly skywards. The lamps are so efficient that this wasn't considered to be a problem when they were installed (Figure 1). Belgian LPS fixtures are by comparison full cut-off designs with internal reflectors to control the light (Plates 2 and 3). (not printed)

  There are some very bad luminaire designs where more than half the light goes skywards. Typically used in supermarket car parks and appear to be designed to generate sky glow to attract passing trade. A classic bad design looks like a goldfish bowl with a lamp in on top of a vertical stalk (Figure 2). (not printed)

  The other extremely bad design is the symmetric parabolic security lamp (500W quartz halogen). These have disastrous light spill and glare problems and there is no excuse at all for this—asymmetric designs give better control, a more useful light distribution and vastly reduced glare (Figure 3). (not printed)


  To make astronomers happy:

    —Use the right amount of light  

    —Light only the right places—shielded full cut-off fixtures are best

    —Use the right type of light—low pressure sodium is easily filtered

  Ideally we would like to see all new fixtures to match all these criteria. Wasted light is wasted money.

  It would be nice to see some of the old inefficient luminaires retrofitted with inexpensive aluminium foil reflectors so that more of their light goes down onto the road instead of skywards.


  1.  Coaton, J R & Marsden A M, Lamps and Lighting 4th edn., Arnold, 1997,

London ISBN 0 340 64618 7  Wiley, 1997, New York ISBN 0 470 23589 6

  2.  Bradford, Connecticut lighting regulations

  3.  Benn, C R, The Great Apagon

13 April 2003

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