Saturday night, a troop of brave Hatteras Island locals and visitors
ignored the slightly below freezing temperatures and headed to the
beach across from the Hatteras Civic Center. The lone vehicle that
passed by during the procession slowed down as the driver surely
wondered, “Who on earth goes to the beach in this freezing cold
Stargazers, that’s who.
trek was the last event in this past weekend’s Starry Nights on Hatters
Island celebration – a two-day educational program aimed to give
islanders a better understanding of the dome of stars overhead.
event was sponsored by the Hatteras Village Civic Association with
partial funding provided by the Dare County Tourism Board and was
orchestrated by the UNC Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in
Chapel Hill – the largest planetarium in the state.
addition to its massive planetarium in the Triangle, the center also
has a popular outreach program which brings its mobile planetarium to
communities all across North Carolina
essentially bring the planetarium experience to people who can’t hop on
a bus to Chapel Hill,” says Nick Eakes, mobile planetarium outreach
educator and session leader for the weekend.
Eakes added that, although the planetarium staff has been to local
gymnasiums and schools across the state, Hatteras Island was pretty
is the most awesome place we’ve ever been,” he said. “You have
beautiful skies here. In Durham, there’s always light pollution and
obstructions… but not in Hatteras.”
Eakes and fellow outreach educator Hope Thomson made the trek to
Hatteras Island on Thursday night with a fully operational planetarium
loaded into a mini-van. Once it was set up at the Hatteras Village Fire
Station, it would serve as the hub for Saturday morning and Saturday
while the opening reception on Friday night during cold, icy weather
was somewhat sparsely attended, the full day of Saturday programs was
a big hit with kids and adults alike.
if you’ve never seen a mobile planetarium before, from the outside, it
looks like a cross between a giant black igloo and an inflatable
holiday yard ornament.
by a fan, the dome essentially “inflates” within an hour or so,
reaching a good 10 feet into the air. Hence, the need for a large
space, like the Hatteras Fire Station.
you’re inside however, it’s like a different world, with a full
semi-circle of stars overhead. Surrounded by the night sky, once the
presentation starts and the skies begin to shift, it’s almost dizzying.
“Our goal here is to emulate the night skies, and give some tips and tricks to help people look around,” explained Eakes.
day started with a 10:30 a.m. session aimed at kids, which drew an
impressive 50-60 young attendees. Youngsters were ushered into the
mobile planetarium in two groups because of seating capacity. While
they were waiting their turn, they participated in hands-on activities,
which included creating their own constellation with stickers and
making a wearable “Orion’s belt.” There were even actual meteorites on
display, which were placed side-by-side with earth rocks to show the
afternoon session attracted a cross-section of about 20 attendees,
which included kids and adults, as well as astronomy experts and
the group hunkered down in the inflated planetarium and the lights went
off, there was an audible murmur throughout the crowd.
presentation from Eakes lasted 30 minutes or so -- though it was hard
to tell time with the skies shifting from 7:00 p.m. at night to the
morning sunrise -- and it was obvious that there were some pro
stargazers in the dome, as well as a few newcomers.
“Does anyone know what this is an image of?” Eakes asked as he projected a shot of the Crab Nebula overhead.
“Space!” answered one participant with a smart sense of humor.
was a surprisingly lively show, with lines and illustrations
illuminating the night sky to indicate the constellations that would be
visible that evening. There was even a little background music --
appropriately, The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” -- to set the mood for
the transition from night to day.
the session, there was a flurry of questions that ranged from what
planets were currently visible, to how to tell Mars from a red star, to
where certain constellations were during the winter months and
Overall, the program was a great primer for the evening to come.
later, a group of about 30 to 40 attendees -- once again, a mixture of
kids and adults -- headed to the Hatteras Village Civic Center, where
hot stew and veggie soup were waiting to warm everyone up before the
night’s adventure. The space was decked out in appropriate star
balloons and had a nice festive vibe as participants chatted and
bundled up in as many layers of winter gear as possible.
there, the group headed across the street to the sand, where Eakes and
Thomson passed around binoculars and set up two telescopes – one with a
16x magnification and one with a 36x magnification. Through the lenses,
stargazers enjoyed in-depth views of the moon’s surface -- complete
with craters -- identified visible constellations, spotted nebulas, and
even watched planets rise.
beach-goers scanned the skies and pointed out the north star, the big
dipper, Orion’s belt, and other landmarks - or rather sky-marks - that
had been covered in the earlier sessions, it was obvious that attendees
had learned a lot and had garnered an entirely new perspective of the
Hatteras Island landscape.
have such dynamic skies and often people don’t even look up,” said
Belinda Pla-Willis, who organized the event, along with Tracy Shisler.
“I am all for sky watching on Hatteras Island, and this program is
really good for our kids. Our 10:30 [children’s] program was packed,
and that’s what we wanted – a chance for our kids to learn an
appreciation for the night skies.”
“This was our first time [holding Starry Nights], and we’re planning to make it an annual event,” she added.
in the meantime, islanders who didn’t have a chance to go into the dome
or check out the starry skies under the guidance of an expert, can look
forward to April’s statewide N.C. Science Festival, which has four
events scheduled within Dare County, according to Hope Thomson.
All-in-all, for those who braved the cold, it was an otherworldly event that won’t soon be forgotten.
who has attended has been really interested,” said Eakes during the
Saturday afternoon session. “And we’re excited to be here, experience
these beautiful skies, and bring the planetarium experience to