As cooped-up parents search for ways to keep their equally cooped-up kids occupied, it should be comforting to know there may be an engaging—and free—form of entertainment right in their own backyards—night sky viewing.
If you’re in the Shenandoah Valley/Blue Ridge Mountains, you can, on a clear night, preferably with no moon, see a splendid display of astronomical delights. From a vantage point high up in the mountains and far from city lights, the stars, planets and constellations display a brilliance not visible from light-dense urban areas.
For example, one spectacular show expected this month, is the Lyrid Meteor Shower. An annual phenomenon that will take place April 16 – 26, it can display “surges” of up to 100 meteors an hour. Named after constellation Lyra, this is one of the oldest meteor showers on record–some historical Chinese texts report it was seen 2,500 years ago. The fireballs in the meteor shower are created by debris from comet Thatcher, which takes about 415 years to orbit around the sun. This year the shower is expected to peak April 22 or 23. Telescopes will help see the show but are not absolutely needed. Click here for help in finding where to look.
Shenandoah National Park*, of course, is an ideal location for night sky viewing, and two astronomical programs are scheduled that will prove both fun and educational. (While the programs don’t start until late May and June, respectively, note that dates for both could be cancelled or postponed due to public safety concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.)
Night Skies allows you to join amateur astronomers as they present a presentation on controlling light pollution as you gaze at the stars through telescopes. Held select Fridays at the Big Meadows Area (mile 51, outside the Rapidan Camp Gate), the sessions are free to all park visitors. A blanket, chair, and flashlight are recommended.
In Exploring the Skies, amateur astronomer Frank Perfetti will share with you not only his love for astronomy but also for aviation, which he did as a volunteer at the National Air and Space Museum in D.C. manning a Discovery Station. During his 52 years of flying – 36 of it professionally – he has been witness to some amazing beauty and grandeur as he flew over the country. In the event of inclement weather, a video presentation featuring amazing night sky images Frank has taken over the years will be held in the Massanutten Room at Big Meadows Lodge.
Still another event, the Night Sky Festival, (see photo at left) is a day-long program of constellation tours, solar scope viewing, telescope viewing, Junior Ranger programs, audio-visual presentations, hands-on activities, and more! it’s usually held in August.
To pursue night sky viewing on your own, a great resource to start with is Night Sky Planner. Type in your zip code and get a current map of Night Skies as seen from your location. You can download sky maps of the current month, see a variety of sun and moon data, and get video Nightwatching Tips from NASA. The Spot the Station function allows you to choose your location and see when the International Space Station can be seen crossing the sky.
*The Park was temporarily closed on April 8th. Keep up with breaking Alerts and Conditions here.
Banner photo courtesy Virginia Tourism Corporation/John Plashal