The Night Sky

On the first Wednesday of each month, an 

unmistakably rare group of people can be found 

meeting on the second floor of the Webb Library 

in downtown Morehead City. Budgets and 

minute-taking aren’t the primary focus at this 

gathering, but rather the search for knowledge about outer space 

– stars, the moon and the millions upon millions of other objects 

with which we share the universe. 

The Crystal Coast Stargazers astronomy club formed in the 

fall of 2016. Though the formal club is still rather young, many 

of its astronomy-enthusiasts and have been participating in various 

related activities for decades. 

The group came together when founding member David Heflin 

approached Paul Terry, a ranger at Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic 

Beach, about getting some fellow astronomy enthusiasts together 

regularly for meetings and nighttime sky viewings. Initially, Terry 

didn’t think there would be enough interest to start a club, but 

along came Lisa Pelletier-Harman, Rick and Becky Brown, Frank 

Angeli, Carol Reigle and Doug Waters and the Crystal Coast 

Stargazers was born. 

Many of the club members can pinpoint a time in their lives 

which directly led to their interest in outer space. Member Brandon 

Porter has had an interest in astronomy since childhood. Growing 

up before the internet was the go-to source for everything, he 

relied on picture books and the occasional television program. His 

first telescope sparked an interest that never left him though and 

now, as an adult, he is an avid amateur astronomer who is thrilled 

to see that same interest in his own daughter. 

Lisa Pelletier-Harman vividly remembers becoming fascinated 

with space exploration during the Race to the Moon of the 1960s. 

“The first time I was able to see the mountains up close I was a 

goner and have been hooked ever since,” she said. “There’s nothing 

more satisfying than sharing someone’s excitement the first time 

they look through the scope. It takes me back to that moment in 

the 60s when I saw my first closeup view of the moon and I get to 

relive that excitement over and over.” 

Doug Waters photo
Doug Waters photo

By the summer of 2018, the club has grown to 32 official  

members with a core group of about 15 that attend most meetings,  

viewings and other events. They do, however, have about 100  

people on their mailing list and new people come to check out  

meetings regularly so the club is steadily growing.  

While the Wednesday meetings get routine club business out of  

the way, the true magic happens when the group makes the trek out  

to their viewing location in Otway. The Stargazer’s site is located  

at the North River Wetlands Reserve which is owned by the N.C.  

Coastal Federation, which graciously granted the group access.  

The gravel road leading in to the North River observation site  

is lined with tall grass on either side and, to the chagrin of many,  

filled with the bird-sized mosquitoes that one would expect to  

find in any undeveloped area Down East. At one point some of the  

fields were cleared but now trees have begun to grow so they may  

eventually have to choose a different area on the reserve for viewing  

if the current one becomes too obstructed.  

According to Pelletier-Harman, the loudest sound you hear  

out there on a viewing night is laughter – while they certainly take  

astronomy seriously, they ultimately are folks who not only enjoy a  

common interest but each other’s company as well.  

The designation of a Dark Sky Site is given by the International  

Dark Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit organization aimed at  

promoting the preservation of the night sky through outreach,  

education and the encouragement of lessening light pollution.  

While the North River Wetlands Reserve isn’t officially recognized  

as a Dark Sky Site, it could easily qualify as one if an application  

were submitted to the IDA.  

The nearest Dark Sky Site to the Crystal Coast is located in  

Staunton River State Park in southern Virginia, only about 40  

miles north of the North Carolina border or approximately 100  

miles north of Raleigh. There is also an officially recognized site  

in North Carolina at the Blue Ridge Observatory and Star Park, 6  

miles west of Spruce Pine and about 30 minutes south of Boone.  

Eligibility requirements differ depending on what kind of space  

can be viewed from the site, including International Dark Sky  

communities, parks, reserves, sanctuaries, urban night sky places  

and dark sky friendly developments of distinction.  

They not only have light pollution-related requirements (based  

on a realistic determination of how much access to a true “dark  

sky” an area will have), but also have land access requirements  

regarding who will be able to gain access to the area to enjoy the  

sky, if it is publicly or privately owned, an historic site or a nature  

reserve. As of July 2018, there are 100 sites throughout the world  

that are officially designated as International Dark Sky Sites  

Dark Sky status is determined by the Bortle Scale which ranges  

from 1-9, with 1 being the best and 9 the worst. The North River  

site is about a 4 which indicates that some objects are sometimes  

visible with the naked eye. On a clear night with proper conditions,  

the Milky Way as well as a few other objects can be seen without  

the aid of a telescope.  

Though this growing group of gazers has done an excellent  

job of organizing events and community outreach programs, they  

have some outside resources at their disposal which they readily  

take advantage of. One of the most prominent is the Night Sky  

Network (NSN), a crew of amateur astronomy clubs that is  

supported by NASA. NSN provides an excellent way for club  

members to maintain contact with each other via message boards  

and emails and also provides a wealth of resources for amateur  

clubs all over the world.  

Members of the Night Sky Network have access to NASA  

educational materials and the network supports astronomy clubs  

by providing media, disseminating information and allowing clubs  

to network with one another. NSN even provides complimentary  

toolkits for clubs to use at later events. When the tools are put into  

service, the event can be classified as a Night Sky Network event, a  

prominent designation in the amateur astronomy world.  

For Pelletier-Harman, the toolkits are an invaluable resource.  

They make sharing what can be very complex information a  

more relatable and hands-on experience for those who attend her  

programs. Children who attend are especially fond of the toolkits  

as they allow them to learn by touching and doing, not just listening  

to a lecture or watching a presentation.  

In addition to monthly meetings and the viewings in North  

River, the club assists with Astronomy Nights at the Fort Macon  

and Cape Lookout visitor centers. At Fort Macon, Pelletier-  

Harman participates in part of the program that takes place the  

second Saturday of every month.  

The material she touches on varies but she tries to always utilize  

some interactive material to keep her audience engaged. These  

programs typically see a turnout of around 50 people in the winter  

to upwards of 150 in the peak summer season. Guests vary from  

homeschoolers and year-round students to tourists and people  

from surrounding areas visiting for the day. Pelletier-Harman has  

even seen people drive all the way from Kinston or Greenville just  

to attend the program and turn around and drive back home.  

A similar program is held at the Cape Lookout Visitors Center  

on Harkers Island that typically sees a smaller turnout (around 30)  

and is only held during the summer months.  

During both events, time is set aside to (weather permitting)  

allow attendees to look through telescopes that have been provided.  

People are also welcome to bring their own equipment and ask the  

club members questions or seek out advice on their telescopes or  

nighttime viewing.  

Pelletier-Harman carries the designation of being Eastern  

North Carolina’s first Solar System Ambassador. This means that  

she represents NASA and acts as envoy between NASA and the  

public and shares information about its programs and missions.  

Her focus is on upcoming missions, activity on earth (weather,  

climate change, etc.) and educating those with an interest on what  

is going on in the world around them.  

“The application process and training were very intense,” she  

said. “I was honored to be chosen from applicants around the  

globe to represent NASA and our club. There is a definite need in  

our area for hands-on experiences and with NASA’s backing and  

information I am thrilled to go out and work with the public. It’s  

been quite a rewarding experience and I am very excited about the  

adventures I will be able to share in the coming years.”  

Getting Started  

According to group members, the best time to go out for a  

viewing is a few days before or after the new moon (this is the phase  

of the moon when it isn’t visible). The group tries to schedule their  

events the Friday closest to the new moon.  

The invisibility of the moon creates less light pollution and  

thus more ideal conditions for viewing stars and other celestial  

bodies. Unfortunately, one can do all the planning and moon phase  

tracking they please, but this is the kind of hobby that is 100% at  

the mercy of the weather. A perfect new moon phase is no match  

for clouds and thunderstorms.  

The Stargazers have found, however, that viewing is much  

easier in the winter. The skies are clearer overall because of the  

lower humidity levels and less atmospheric interference.  

Viewing objects in the sky is also heavily governed by time as  

the sky changes throughout the calendar year. It determines what  

you’re looking for (or what is viewable) and where to find it. The  

planets move at different speeds, so people may be able to see  

different ones at varying times of the month, but they’re not in the  

same position in the sky for too long.  

The best time to view planets, according to club members, is  

when they are in opposition – that is, when the planet is lined up  

with the earth and the sun, making it appear much brighter and  

easier to see. The time when each planet is in opposition changes  

monthly and yearly.  

Start with the basics. Learn the location of the North Star and  

the constellations, said the experts, and learn how to use a star map,  

binoculars and other equipment including telescope basics.  

“The most important tip for beginners would be to find your  

local astronomy club and start going to events,” suggested Brandon  

Porter.  

Many of the Stargazers don’t just go out on viewings but also  

do night sky photography and have captured amazing images of  

the celestial bodies that surround us. Starting off, a digital camera  

with a standard lens will do the trick and will allow one to capture  

beautiful images of the stars, Milky Way, moon and other objects  

that are relatively close in space.  

Once comfortable with the camera, one may decide to move  

on to the next level – astrophotography. This involves attaching  

the camera to a telescope, making it possible to photograph things  

much further away, like Jupiter and Saturn.  

Looking Ahead  

The Crystal Coast Stargazers are busy planning for the  

upcoming Observe the Moon night as well as the 50th anniversary  

of the moon landing in 2019.  

Observe the Moon is an annual event held each October to  

raise interest in astronomy. Events will be held across the country.  

Although the club isn’t yet sure where they’ll setup this year, the  

programs typically involves setting up telescopes so those interested  

can stop in and get a closeup look at the moon.  

For the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the local club  

members would love to get on NASA’s calendar as one of the  

official 50th anniversary events. Excitement is almost palpable  

among the members at the potential for holding an event right here  

in Carteret County to celebrate and bring awareness to such a life  

changing moment in America’s history.  

One may wonder what, in 2018, is left to learn about the  

heavens. With the advent of the Apollo program, Hubble, the Mars  

Rover and countless other space missions and unmanned crafts  

sent out, so much information has been collected over the past 50  

years. However, one must also keep in mind that any knowledge  

currently possessed about the universe surrounding us initially  

began with a seed of curiosity and a drive to find out the answer.  

That drive to find out more, to answer those countless “what  

ifs” is nowhere more apparent than in the Crystal Coast Stargazers.  

It is encouraging to see their passion for science and learning and  

to find a group that not only takes such clear pleasure and pride  

in what they’re doing but has a longing to share the information  

with others and take beginners under their wing. Could the next  

big discovery be found on the second floor of the Webb Library on  

the first Wednesday of every month? Just as most things with space  

exploration go, the possibilities are limitless.  

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