BY AMY SAYLE
What happens at Morehead's skywatching sessions at Jordan Lake?
A lot of fun! You get to enjoy being outside at night, meet nice folks, and look through telescopes brought by Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and members of the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS). Raleigh Astronomy Club (RAC) members often bring telescopes as well. If skies permit, a Morehead educator will give a constellation tour with a green laser—tours are announced during the session.
Where and when are the skywatching sessions?
Morehead hosts free skywatching sessions for the public nearly every month (weather permitting) at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake. The Jordan Lake sessions are usually on a Saturday evening, but may occur on a weekday if there is a special sky event, such as a meteor shower.
Occasionally, skywatching sessions are held at other sites, including Little River Regional Park. Check Morehead's online skywatching calendar for the current schedule and directions.
What will I see at a skywatching session?
It depends on what’s in the sky that night. Typically, we schedule sessions so you can see the Moon. Usually at least one planet is visible. Expect to also see some objects outside our solar system, such as double stars, star clusters, nebulae, or even other galaxies. You might also see satellites and meteors.
If you’ve been to one skywatching session, you definitely haven’t been to them all! The stars and constellations change over the year as Earth orbits the Sun, and the Moon and planets move from night to night against the background of the stars.
Will I see the Milky Way?
Maybe. Jordan Lake offers better (darker) skies than many places in the Triangle, but the sky is still light polluted. Even so, we often see the Milky Way—the hazy band that's the plane of our galaxy.
Do I have to make a reservation?
No, just show up. If you plan to bring a large group, such as an entire class or Scouts group, we’d appreciate a heads-up at (919) 962-1236, but it’s not required.
Is there a fee?
No, Morehead’s public skywatching sessions are free.
What if it’s cloudy? How do I know if the skywatching session is cancelled?
The telescopes can’t see through clouds, so don't come if skies are overcast or it's raining. We recommend checking Morehead's website after 5 p.m. the day of the session, just to make sure there’s not a cancelation notice. We also often post updates on Facebook and Twitter.
Where do I park for the Jordan Lake sessions?
There's plenty of parking at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. If you arrive later in the session, try to park at the nearer end of the lot, so that your headlights stay away from the telescopes. Please turn headlights off as soon as your car is safely parked.
What should I wear?
Bring layers. Unless it’s the warmest of summer nights, standing around outside at night can feel colder than you'd expect. Dress more warmly than you think you need to, and it’ll probably work out just right.
What about flashlights?
Regular white flashlights are fine to use in emergencies, and inside the restroom building. Otherwise, please use only red light, or even better, no light at all. Your eyes will take a number of minutes to fully adapt to the dark, but once they do, you’ll be amazed at how well you can see! Using white light—including light from cellphones or flash photos—will instantly ruin your night vision, as well as that of everyone around you, and will probably make the astronomers grumpy.
Are there restrooms?
Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake has restrooms with flush toilets. The restrooms will not be lit, so this is where you’ll want your flashlight!
Is my pet welcome?
No pets, please. Pets (even on a leash) + lots of people + expensive telescopes + the dark = a bad combination.
Do I have to stay the whole time?
No, you can drop in any time. But what's up in the sky will change during the session because of Earth’s rotation. If you arrive late, you might miss out on objects setting in the west. If you leave early, you might miss out on objects rising in the east. Those not staying the whole time may also miss out on a constellation tour.
Can I arrive before the scheduled start time? Can I stay after it ends?
If you arrive early, you may find that telescope operators are too busy setting up to have a conversation. The Jordan Lake rangers request that we pack up and exit at the scheduled end time.
Are skywatching sessions kid-friendly?
Yes! All ages are welcome. Very young children may not get much out of looking through a telescope, but those elementary-school-aged and older may especially enjoy the experience. Parents: We recommend you look through the telescope first—then you’ll be better able to help your child look.
Sometimes, children (as well as adults) want to grab hold of the telescope, potentially smudging the eyepiece or knocking the object out of view. Please teach children not to touch the telescope without the operator’s permission. You can ask children to place their hands behind their back as they approach the scope. Explain they’ll be using their eyes to look, not their hands.
How do I look through a telescope?
First, find the end of the line for a given telescope. When you get to the front, be sure not to grab on to the telescope or you may knock things out of alignment. Ask the telescope operator if you’re not sure where to put your eye. You may need to try moving your eye closer or farther from the eyepiece to get a good view. If you wear glasses, try looking with them first; if the image seems blurry, ask the operator for help.
Don't see anything? Speak up! The operator may need to adjust the scope. Have questions after you look? The telescope operators would love to answer them! Please step aside to ask, so the line can keep moving.
Do I have to bring a telescope?
No. Morehead and local astronomy club members provide the telescopes. All you have to do is show up. You may look through any of the telescopes.
But what if I do bring my own telescope?
Please know that Morehead skywatching sessions are not “star parties” aimed at fellow amateur astronomers. Rather, they are public outreach sessions, and the public will be expecting to look through your telescope. Typically, up to 200 or more people attend our skywatching sessions at Jordan Lake.
If you would enjoy providing views to the public through your telescope, we suggest you join CHAOS or RAC (astronomy clubs), where you will meet a supportive community and receive updates about public and private observing sessions.
Are skywatching sessions a good place for me to learn to use my telescope?
Probably not. Daytime is a better time to get familiar with your telescope (of course, don’t point it at the Sun unless it’s equipped with a proper solar filter). And if you bring your scope to a Jordan Lake session, people will come up to you the entire time wanting to look through it.
The sessions can be a good place to ask a few questions of the amateur astronomers, but do keep in mind that Morehead staff and telescope operators may not have time to answer extensive questions from any one person. For more personal help, attend a "telescope tune-up clinic" hosted by the Raleigh Astronomy Club. Other advice related to choosing and using telescopes can be found in this blog post.
What about accessibility?
Skywatching sessions are in outdoor locations with varying terrain and darkness. If you have special accessibility needs, please contact Morehead ahead of time with your questions.
How can I prepare for what I'm going to see at the skywatching session?
No need to prepare, but a great way to learn more about what’s visible in the current sky is by attending live programs at Morehead Planetarium, such as Carolina Skies (recommended for ages 8 through adults), Starry Nights (adults and teens), or Star Families (families with children ages 7 to 12). For more information, check the Morehead website at http://moreheadplanetarium.org/ or call (919) 962-1236.
What if I have a question that wasn’t answered here?
Please reply to this blog post with your question, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (919) 962-1236.
Last revised September 21, 2012
Photo: Join us for a skywatching session at Jordan Lake!