By JOY CRIST
On 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 weather?”
Stargazers, that’s who.
The 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.
The 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.
In 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
“We 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.
And Eakes added that, although the planetarium staff has been to local gymnasiums and schools across the state, Hatteras Island was pretty darn impressive.
“This 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.”
Nick 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 afternoon’s activities.
And 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.
Now, 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.
Powered 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.
Once 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.
The 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 comparison.
The afternoon session attracted a cross-section of about 20 attendees, which included kids and adults, as well as astronomy experts and complete novices.
Once the group hunkered down in the inflated planetarium and the lights went off, there was an audible murmur throughout the crowd.
The 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.
It 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.
After 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 summertime.
Overall, the program was a great primer for the evening to come.
Hours 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.
From 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.
As 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.
“We 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.
And 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.
“Everyone 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 everyone.”