Morehead Planetarium astronomy educator Mickey Jo Sorrell describes the constellations as 88 puzzle pieces that make up the night sky. She encourages kids to invent their own constellations, and she’s making the children’s book “Henry’s Stars” – a book in which a pig looks up to the night sky, connects the dots, and sees his own species – part of this year’s Statewide Star Party program.
“Along come cows and horses and chickens and they all see themselves in the sky,” she says. “It’s helping everyone understand that these constellations were drawn with human imagination.”
It fits the Statewide Star Party’s theme this year: “Find Your Way in the Sky.” By understanding constellations, kids can orient themselves, even at night.
The Statewide Star Party, now in its fourth year, is only one element of the sixth annual North Carolina Science Festival. The festival itself runs April 8-24 and has dozens of events all over North Carolina, from urban centers to rural parks. The Star Party, April 8-9, is one of the signature events, a mountains-to-coast weekend of astronomy and sky-watching to kick off the North Carolina Science Festival.
To organize this on a statewide scale, Sorrell says she and Star Party co-host Amy Sayle rely on two things: sites willing to host and astronomy clubs willing to bring out telescopes and expertise.
“A big part of the success of the Star Party was finding local partners. Our favorite partners are the local astronomy clubs,” Sorrell says. “It makes a perfect match that we have a camp or a park that can bring in the people and then we’ve got astronomers who are passionate about sharing what they love.”
We spoke with Sorrell about what goes into organizing the Statewide Star Party, which is supported by the N.C. Space Grant.
Q: North Carolina has urban areas with a lot of people, and also a lot of light pollution. And then you have rural areas where you have amazing visibility at night, but a sparser population. How do you plan the Statewide Star Party in a state that has those two extremes?
A: We don’t focus on that too heavily. We start by inviting hosts to host a party – we invite museums, state parks, environmental centers. You’re right, there are state parks that have a nice, dark sky, but they don’t have an urban center close by so they might throw a party and 20 people come. And then you have an urban center where they have a lot of light pollution, but they could easily pull out 200 or 300 people in a night. We just deal with that reality. We make sure we talk about it. At our very first star party, our focus was on light pollution, and we had a number of projects for monitoring light pollution. So we dove headfirst into that by addressing light pollution head-on.
Q: What about previous themes?
A: People love to look at the moon, and in urban centers, the moon is sometimes the main thing you can see. So the second year we focused on the moon. Last year we focused on our solar system, because we had the most planets that we expected to see in the night sky for three or four years. This year, the Science Festival is focused on science and the out of doors. We have partnered with the North Carolina State Parks – they’re having their 100th anniversary this year. In keeping with that theme, the Star Party became “Find Your Way in the Sky.”
My personal goal for the Star Party is that everyone who comes will be able to find their directions by finding the North Star. All you need for that is the Big Dipper, and even in urban centers the Big Dipper is a good target. We’re also teaching them to use star maps, we’re teaching them why they would need to use a red flashlight with their star maps. We’re having them draw what they see in the sky. We’re having them create their own constellations.
We’re already planning for 2017, because 2017 has a huge event in it. On August 21 of 2017 there’s a total solar eclipse that will be visible from Oregon all the way across the United States. It will come through the western edge of North Carolina and then go all the way across South Carolina. The 2017 Star Party will focus on our sun being a star and what that means, how we get our light and energy from the sun and the life cycle of stars. A good way to think about it is we’ll have our usual April Star Party for 2017 and then we’ll have another Star Party for the eclipse in August 2017.
Q: What would be some good resources for someone who attends the Star Party and then wants to keep skywatching?
A: If someone comes to an event and gets excited about the sky, they can stay right there with that organization – they’re likely to see more skywatching there. They also have an opportunity to connect with local astronomers. Most of those clubs have loaner telescopes, and they love to answer questions.
All of our activities, all the files for the activities are available online at the Star Party site. We borrow a lot of our activities from NASA, so they’re all out there for education. We’re happy to share.
Q: What do you do in case of bad weather?
A: Each site is invited and encouraged to come up with an alternate plan – postpone it to the next weekend or a rain date or move it indoors. Most of our activities, except for the skywatching itself, can be done inside as well as outside.
We also remind them not to panic when they’re looking at the 10-day forecast. We actually send out a “do not panic” email: don’t worry about the 10-day forecast. Only glance curiously at the five-day forecast. About two days out, that’s when you really need to be thinking “will this work? Do we need to switch to our alternative?” Then they can send us an email, up to the last minute, and we can change it on the website.
N.C. Science Festival
The N.C. Science Festival takes place across the state April 8-24. The Statewide Star Party events are April 8-9.
Check out the detailed schedule at NCScienceFestival.org.