The Night Sky

Please Note: A pdf version of the published article is available at the bottom of this post.

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.” 

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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