Dishes at the Very Large Array are lit by a nearby lightning strike.
Bettymaya Foott | Photo courtesy of NRAO

Bettymaya Foott grew up staring at the stars over Moab, but she didn’t try photographing the sky overhead until she was asked to document light pollution on Utah horizons using a very basic camera. Foott was astonished at the vibrancy of the Milky Way galaxy in her shots, and the experience awakened her love for astrophotography.

“I just went out and took the (Utah) state park’s camera, which is not a very nice camera, and one of the park rangers taught me how to focus on the stars and was doing a panoramic shoot. I started in the east, and as I moved towards the south all of a sudden, the Milky Way appeared on the back of the camera screen and I’ll never forget that moment. It was so magical, and every astrophotographer I know has that similar experience.”

Since then, Foott has shot stars all over the southwest, including spots in New Mexico like Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins National Monument.

Last year, Foott was hired to photograph the Very Large Array at night, a rare opportunity. The VLA does not allow visitors near its sensitive radio antennas at night.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals can create too much digital noise for the important astronomical research being completed there. Fortunately, Foott does not have much equipment reliant on Wi-fi or Bluetooth.

Foott made the six-hour drive from Durango, Colorado, to shoot the VLA and the dark night sky above it once each season in 2022. Those photos are part of an exhibit at Warehouse 1-10 in Magdalena focused on dark skies.

Some of her favorite shots were of the summer sky during blue hour, the hour before it gets completely dark. With a little light from the sun and the Milky Way already visible overhead, the photos look ethereal.

A waning gibbous moon was also a highlight of her time capturing the VLA.

“Waning gibbous are really fun to shoot because you have an hour or two before the moon rises, so you can get super dark shots, but then you can also get the moon rising and starting to illuminate the scene.”

“When the moon rises it’s almost like a sunrise or a sunset and the light is just golden, and so that was really fun to shoot as well.”

The lights from the City of Socorro are a subtle glow in the distance in some of Foott’s photos.

“Right now, it’s not impinging a huge amount on the dark skies there, but that’s why these type of events like the Dark Sky Land is really important so that that dome does not grow, and those skies can stay dark for future generations.”

Foott works with the International Dark-Sky Association to advocate for reducing light pollution.

“It’s the most unifying human experience, looking up at the stars and looking up at the night sky and realizing the vast infinite universe we’re all a part of and to me it’s such a uniting experience because we realize we’re just humans. We’re all humans. We might be different, but we’re all humans in it together on this spaceship that’s hurtling through space, and I think that’s a really important feeling, especially in this day and age when there’s so many divisions and things trying to separate us and put us up against one another.”

Ways to limit light pollution

Light pollution is one of the easiest forms of pollution to solve, said Foott.

Turning unneeded lights off, using warmer tone lights, and properly shielding outdoor lights can all reduce light pollution.

“We understand that light is necessary for some things … but when we do need a light, there’s really simple ways to do it better,” said Foott.

The International Dark-Sky Association offers five principles for responsible outdoor lighting.

-All light should have a clear purpose

-Light should be directed only to where it’s needed, by shielding or aiming the direction of the light beam to point downward and avoid spilling beyond where it is needed

-Light should be no brighter than necessary.

-Light should only be used when useful. Controls like timers and motion detectors can be used.

-Use warmer color lights instead of blue light.

The International Dark-Sky Association will be launching a dark sky chapter in New Mexico soon, which anyone can join.