Outdoors Recreation

Night Sky Watching in The Blue Ridge Mountains

Night Sky Watching in The Blue Ridge Mountains

Star Trail of Polaris from Waterrock Knob. Photo courtesy of Courtland White

Wrap Yourself in an Astronomical Mountain Blanket

By Ken Czarnomski

On these short winter days, evenings come early and time ticks by as we shroud ourselves in shelters. The light we appreciate is within our reach. However, as we step into the night and feel the crisp sting of winter air under the clarity of an infinite sky, we experience something larger. There is the moon, of course. But, if we probe beyond its glow, there are stars, planets and galaxies—trillions of them located light years away. Even the illumination of commercial enterprise cannot overcome the magic of this universal, everlasting blanket our mountains offer.

The Blue Ridge Mountains in Western North Carolina present one of the best opportunities to explore the night skies anywhere in the US. In addition to panoramic mountain views, we have four excellent observatories. Dark Sky Observatory, operated by Appalachian State University in Boone; Grassland Mountain Observatory owned and operated by the Astronomy Club of Asheville; Lookout Observatory at the University of North Carolina Asheville campus; and Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI), which offers educational events and evening viewings.

In the summer of 2013, my wife purchased tickets to the Brevard Music Center Orchestra venue, which featured The Planets, a seven-movement orchestra suite composed by Gustav Holst, at the open-air Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium. PARI presented a slide show coordinated to the music, showing views of each planet. That summer evening was one of the best, right up there with experiencing the Perseid meteor shower while lying on a blanket viewing the evening sky above Waterrock Knob.

To enjoy a profound experience of your own, visit one of the local observatories or arrange an outing with the Astronomy Club of Asheville. Each venue offers observations through state-of-the-art computer controlled telescopes.

“Nothing takes the place of seeing a planet, galaxy or star cluster directly with your own eye at a telescope. Looking through the eyepiece allows you to look back in time,” says Bernard Arghiere, an astronomer at University of North Carolina Asheville Lookout Observatory and a board member of the Astronomy Club. The club is an operating partner of the Lookout Observatory with UNCA.

For a much darker sky experience where the Milky Way is splashed across the sky, attend one of the star gazes at the club’s Grassland Mountain Observatory in Madison County. “Here and at the club’s Blue Ridge observation sites,” Arghiere says, “attendees will observe many more celestial objects in the telescope eyepieces, because of smaller crowds.”

Night Sky Watching in The Blue Ridge Mountains

Milky Way from Grassland Mountain Observatory. Photo courtesy of Jerry Sherman

If you do not have your own, the Downtown Branch of the Asheville Buncombe Public Library also offers telescopes through a loaner program created by the Astronomy Club. Check one out and drive to your favorite mountain setting with a dark sky. In Haywood County, I suggest the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Waterrock Knob, Mile High and Purchase Knob. In Madison County, Max Patch offers a dark sky, plus unbeatable sunrises and sunsets. Farther northeast are the Balds of Roan, where you cannot differentiate between earth and sky, especially from mid-June through July.

If the weather cooperates, 2017 promises to be a good year, astronomically speaking. One of the highlights will be a rare full solar eclipse visible in North Carolina on August 21. Many celestial events can be viewed by the unaided eye, although even a pair of 70×50 binoculars will help. Sea and Sky publishes a good astronomical calendar of celestial events as well as a dictionary of astronomical terms. Download a star map for the day and month based on latitude and longitude or purchase a planisphere (star wheel), if you want to locate specific constellations. There are also user-friendly applications for iPhone and Android like SkySafari 5.

Take part in the astronomical comforts surrounding us. Get out, explore and wrap yourself in some of these wonders.

Learn more about celestial news and events by visiting pari.edu, seasky.org/astronomy, lookoutobservatory.unca.edu, astroasheville.org and dso.appstate.edu. Ken Czarnomski’s background as an architect has influenced his work as an illustrator and cartographer. As vice president of the Blue Ridge Naturalist Network, he is dedicated to connecting people who love the natural world.

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