It doesn’t matter how cold it is, or even how cloudy, given the chance and a dark enough sky, lots of people will show up to look through telescopes at the night sky.
That’s been the case at Jordan Lake for Morehead Planetarium and Science Center’s skywatching sessions. On the frigid evening of April 9, for instance, Jordan Lake rangers estimated 600 people showed. Month to month, the public has maintained interest: 300 attended on a partly cloudy night in May, then well over 1,000 in June and July. August was a record, with about 5,000 folks showing up.
“They were parked all over the place,” says Morehead educator Amy Sayle. “They parked along the main road and walked in.”
The only recent month skywatching was canceled was October, she says, and that was because of Hurricane Matthew. Weather permitting, there are two such Morehead events this weekend: Friday evening at Little River Regional Park at the Durham/Orange County border and Saturday at Jordan Lake. It’s the sessions at the Chatham County lake that consistently draw a crowd. It’s relatively dark there, particularly for its proximity to the Triangle, and the lake provides a remarkably clear horizon – a double whammy for night sky viewing.
“We’re in this really sweet spot, where we have this huge urban area to draw from that’s close by,” Sayle says. “No, it’s not a pristine sky – it’s not even close – but it’s dark enough that you can see stuff and you usually see at least a hint of the Milky Way.”
To accommodate the hundreds of people who show up at Jordan Lake, Morehead partners with Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observation Society (CHAOS) and both entities bring telescopes. Sometimes Sayle reaches out to the Raleigh Astronomy Club, too, and some attendees bring their own telescopes as well. If she sees anyone setting one up, particularly someone new, she approaches them and tells them to be ready: There are going to be hundreds of people here. If they see a telescope set up, they’ll expect to look through it. Be accommodating.
“It’s fun to watch people look through the first time – or the first time at a really dramatic object, like craters on the moon or especially Saturn,” Sayle says. “People look at Jupiter, and they realize you can see up to four of the moons.”
It’s obvious that Sayle is in the right field when she speaks in excited wonder about taking a closer look at the night sky. It’s a time machine, really: When you look at the moon, she notes, you’re seeing the moon as it looked a little over a second ago. Light from the planets, depending on which planet and where it is in its orbit, can take several minutes to travel to the earth. Stars appear as they did years ago, while distant galaxies appear as they did millions of years ago. Looking into a telescope is essentially looking back in time.
“It really captures people’s imagination because the timescales and the distance scales are so almost unimaginable,” Sayle says. “There is nothing on earth comparable.”
And this is something not everyone can try at home, even with a telescope. A lot of people live in places where they can’t see the Milky Way at night, she points out because of light pollution. Coming to Jordan Lake can be special, even if the sky there isn’t as dark as it could be. There’s a glow in most every direction – Carrboro and Chapel Hill to the north, Pittsboro to the east or Apex to the west. It’s not going to get better with time, Sayle laments, not as the local population grows.
“If we were more careful with how we did lighting, it could be a darker sky,” she says. “Having more people doesn’t necessarily mean light pollution. It doesn’t have to.” Properly shielded streetlights, for example, illuminate only the ground, she says.
Still, it’s dark enough at Jordan Lake to wow attendees. Sayle recalls one visitor gushing that he had never seen so many stars. She thought at first that he was being sarcastic – it was partly cloudy and it wasn’t even that good of a night – but he was being sincere. In India, where he was from, there is much more light pollution. And while most attendees come from the Triangle, every once in a while there’s someone who drove two hours, whatever the weather, to get a better look at the night sky.
“It seems to be that people are using it as a memory-making kind of thing,” Sayle says. “They’re making memories together with their friends and their family.”
What: Skywatching hosted by Morehead Planetarium
Where and when: Little River Regional Park, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2; Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3.