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Lights out. European nights may be about to get darker.

Darker Skies Over Central Europe

Astronomers in the Czech Republic now have the law on their side in peering into the heavens. The country is the world's first to enact nationwide "dark sky" legislation, aimed at reducing the amount of artificial light shining skyward.

The legislation, which President Vaclav Havel signed last month, is part of a bill that brings the Czech Republic into compliance with European Union pollution rules. Representative Stanislav Fischer, a former astronomer, helped slip extra wording into the package that defines light pollution as "every form of illumination by artificial light which is dispersed outside the areas it is dedicated to, particularly if directed above the level of the horizon." Regulations to implement the new law are set to take effect 1 June, with fines of up to $4300 for light scofflaws.

The law won't reduce light pollution overnight, cautions astronomer and dark-sky advocate Jenik Hollan of the Nicolaus Copernicus Observatory and Planetarium in Brno. Cities, for instance, won't be required to shield street lighting immediately. But he hopes that the rules will put an end to "sky-beamers," powerful sky-directed searchlights used to promote special events and draw crowds. Until now, he says, "nobody has been able to do anything about them."