Skywatching FAQ | Morehead Planetarium and Science Center

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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, the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS), and the Raleigh Astronomy Club (RAC). If skies permit, a Morehead educator will use a green laser to point out stars and constellations.

Where are the skywatching sessions?

We meet at a variety of sites around the Triangle, including Little River Regional Park (Rougemont), Dorothea Dix Park (Raleigh), and Historic Stagville (Durham).

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. Your best bet for seeing the Milky Way—the hazy band of starlight that is the plane of our galaxy—is a site such as Little River, which offers darker skies than many places in the Triangle.

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. You can drop in any time during the session. (Please note: The Stagville Under the Stars events at Historic Stagville usually begin with an indoors storytelling program that you will miss if you arrive late.)

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. Generally, site managers request that we pack up 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 about parking?

All skywatching locations have parking. We encourage carpooling, especially for popular events such as meteor showers. As a courtesy to others, if you arrive after a session has started or if you plan to leave early, try to find a parking spot that will keep your bright headlights away from the observing field. As soon as your car is safely parked, turn off your headlights. When you get ready to leave, please do not sit in your car with the headlights on; turn on headlights only when you’re ready to move your car.

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. Otherwise, please use only red light. Red lights should be dim and aimed at the ground, not in people’s faces. 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?

All skywatching locations have restrooms. You will find flush toilets at locations like Little River Regional Park and Historic Stagville, and portable toilets at Dorothea Dix Park.

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?

Remember that you look with your eyes, not your hands. Please don’t touch any part of the telescope without permission from the telescope operator. 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. Do 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 the entire time. Some of our skywatching events, especially those at Dorothea Dix Park, attract hundreds of people.

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, but Morehead staff and telescope operators may not have time for an extensive conversation.

For personal help using your telescope, attend a telescope clinic hosted by the Raleigh Astronomy Club and consider joining the Chapel Hill astronomy club (CHAOS) or the Raleigh astronomy club (RAC).

 

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.