Darkness overtook twilight as I drove down the winding road to Jordan Lake. It was pitch-black and desolate when I made the final turn into the Ebenezer Church Recreation Area; I began to wonder whether that night’s sky-watching session put on by Morehead Planetarium and Science Center had been canceled due to the clouds. But then I saw the soft glow of red light beyond rows of parked cars and knew I was in the right spot. (Just kill your headlights when you get close so you don’t blind everyone.)
The real treat at the planetarium’s monthly sessions, usually held at Jordan Lake, is really getting to see the sky. Here on the shore, away from all the lights in town, the amount of unobstructed sky is spectacular. I studied the constellation map with my flashlight as I waited in line to look through a telescope, constantly staring up to find the groups of stars. Small patches of clouds moved across the sky now and then, but constellations like the Big Dipper were completely visible.
Once it was my turn to peer through the telescope, the volunteer from Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society told me to look for the moon’s terminator –the line between the illuminated part and dark side of the moon – and a few other features. Another telescope had Jupiter in view, so I hopped in that line. To the naked eye, it looked like any old star, a bright blip near the moon. But I saw the hazy stripes of Jupiter and three out of its four moons.
Throughout the evening, a planetarium staff member led those interested in sky stories away from the crowd. As the rest of us sprawled out in the grass for a better vantage point, she stood, telling stories of stars light-years away. The staffer even deftly deflected a question from a kid who asked whether Santa’s home at the North Pole was anywhere near the North Star. (She answered truthfully by saying that the North Star was millions of miles away.)
In the age of Snapchat and status updates, it was refreshing to spend a night completely unplugged, looking up at the vast expanse that has been captivating humans since the beginning of time. CHM
Want to Go?
See Jupiter, Mars and Saturn on July 9 and the Perseid meteor shower on August 11. If you can’t make it this summer, the sessions continue through the rest of the year.
Show up anytime during the session. I got there a few minutes after 9 p.m. and saw the moon and Jupiter. I left around 10:15 p.m., but anyone who stayed later saw Mars and Saturn.
Once your eyes adjust to the darkness, find the planetarium’s table. They’ve got educational handouts and red balloons to slip over the end of your flashlight – red light is easier on the eyes.
Save the Instagram shots for another time. You won’t get a good picture, and you’ll ruin everyone’s night vision if you use devices like cell phones and flash cameras.
The temperature might be lower than you think. I wore sneakers, pants and a sweatshirt and was comfortable, unlike a lot of people I saw shivering.