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Skywatching FAQ

Comet picture courtesy of Joe Pedit.

Skywatching FAQ

What happens at Morehead’s public skywatching sessions?

You get to enjoy nature at night, meet nice people, and look through telescopes brought by Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS). Members of the Raleigh Astronomy Club (RAC) usually bring telescopes, as well. If skies permit, a Morehead educator will use a green laser to point out stars and constellations.

Where are the skywatching sessions?

We typically hold monthly skywatching sessions at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake. Occasionally, we meet at other sites, such as Little River Regional Park. You can find directions to both locations here.

What will I see at a skywatching session?

If you’ve been to one skywatching session, you definitely haven’t been to them all. The stars and constellations you can see change from month to month as Earth orbits the Sun. The Moon and planets move from night to night against the background of the stars.

Typically, we schedule sessions so you can see the Moon. Usually at least one planet is visible. Expect to see objects outside our solar system, such as double stars, star clusters, nebulae, and even other galaxies. You might see satellites and meteors.

Will I see the Milky Way?

Maybe. Sites such as Jordan Lake offer 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.

Is there a fee?

No. Morehead’s public skywatching sessions are free.

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 scout group, we appreciate a heads-up at (919) 962-1236, but it’s not required.

Do I have to stay the whole time?

No. Drop in any time during the session.

Can I arrive early? Can I stay late?

If you arrive early, you may find that telescope operators are too busy setting up to have a conversation. At Jordan Lake the rangers request that we pack up and exit at the scheduled end time.

What if it’s cloudy? How do I know if the skywatching session is cancelled?

Don’t come if it’s overcast or raining. The telescopes can’t see through clouds. We always recommend checking Morehead’s website after 5 p.m. the day of the session to make sure there’s not a cancellation notice. We also often post updates on Facebook and Twitter.

Where do I park for the Jordan Lake sessions?

There is abundant parking at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. As a courtesy to others, if you arrive after the session has started, please find a parking spot before you reach the very end of the lot, where the telescopes are set up. This keeps your bright headlights away from the observing field. As soon as your car is safely parked, turn off your headlights

What should I wear?

Bring layers. Even in summer, standing around at night can feel colder than you might expect.

What about flashlights and electronic devices?

White flashlights are fine to use in emergencies and inside the restrooms. Otherwise, please use only red light. Even better, don’t use light. Give your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the dark and be amazed at how well you can see with just your night vision.

Avoid using devices such as cellphones, tablets, and flash cameras. These sources of bright light will instantly ruin your night vision, as well as that of everyone around you. You will probably also 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.

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?

If you’re unsure where the telescope eyepiece is, ask the operator to show you. To get a good view, you may need to try moving your eye closer or farther from the eyepiece. 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? 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 astronomy club members provide the telescopes.

But what if I do bring my own telescope?

Please know that Morehead skywatching sessions are public outreach events, and the public will expect to look through your telescope. Typically, 200 or more people attend the skywatching sessions at Jordan Lake.

If you would enjoy providing views to the public through your telescope, we suggest you join the Chapel Hill astronomy club (CHAOS) or the Raleigh astronomy club (RAC). 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?

No. 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 public skywatching session, people will come up to you the entire time expecting to look through it.

The sessions can be a good place to ask questions of the amateur astronomers, but Morehead staff and telescope operators may not have time for an extensive conversation.

For more personal help using your telescope, attend a telescope clinic hosted by the Raleigh Astronomy Club. Other advice related to choosing and using telescopes can be found in the Morehead blog post, “Thinking about buying a telescope?”

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 good 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).

What if I have a question that wasn’t answered here?

Please send an email to mhplanet@unc.edu or call (919) 962-1236.