NORTH MOORE NOTEBOOK: Robbins Seeks New Site for Star Party
Clear skies are not enough to see the stars if there's no dark hill away from city lights to set up telescopes.
Construction and a scheduling conflict mean the Mid Atlantic Star Party (MASP) won't be coming to Robbins this year unless a new home can be found for the annual event.
Its usual spot at Occoneechee Scout Reservation will be covered with camporees. Construction in the regular Camp Durant area has forced their relocation to the Camp Reeves section where the Star Party has been held.
Every year, hundreds of astronomers have made their way to set up scopes and campers during the dark of October's moon. Simple signs, a red star and arrow on a white card, have guided stargazers, photographers, scientists to Occoneechee's hill -- all attracted by one of the Moore County Foothills natural resources: the clearest, darkest skies on the Eastern Seaboard between Maine and the Florida Keys.
A star party, organizer John Dilday says, is a gathering of amateur astronomers and "other night owls, convened in a dark park under clear skies for the purpose of looking up."
Looking up is hard to do most places, because the glare of city lights masks the stars from view. This "light pollution" is one problem Robbins doesn't have. It was those same skies the late Robbins astronaut Charles E. Brady saw, camping out beneath them as an Eagle Scout.
Robbins has been counting on the annual gathering to help the town build its transition to a cultural tourist destination. Now, that hope is threatened and MASP is in danger of slipping away.
Mayor Mickey Brown has vowed to save it, if he can. He's been searching the area for another site. At his invitation Dilday is coming to Robbins to meet with the NC STEP support team.
Brown himself spent a night camping out at MASP 2002 with his two boys. They spent that dark night gazing at wonders -- distant galaxies far away, strange objects in the ancient firmament -- the grandeur of a majestic universe brought closer to earth with mirrors and lenses.
Brown proposed an area-wide effort to protect the starlit skies of northern Moore as a dark park, an astronomy-friendly area with people willing to turn out the lights and give the sky a chance.
"Because of our recent NC Rural Center designation as a NC STEP community we have a lot of hoopla about the Star Party," Brown wrote Dilday. "We want it to stay here! If (the reservation) doesn't work, we will find another place in the area."
There's not a lot of time. This year's MASP is scheduled to run from Tuesday, Oct. 16, through Sunday, Oct. 22 -- when the moon appears mostly on the same side of Earth as the sun, the "dark of the moon" -- and those dates are not very adjustable. A month later would run into Thanksgiving; another month into Christmas, and the weather gets chilly as days shorten.
Occoneechee itself is undertaking a major expansion. Already one of the five largest Scout reservations in the country, it attracts summer campers from all over. But expansion means a new grand lodge and other construction, and that means better roads are needed. That work had to wait for the summer camp season to end, but it needs to be done before winter weather interferes.
Local Scout troops use the reservation for weekend camporees. This year, their usual camping spots are blocked by the construction. That left the Camp Reeves area where MASP has been held. Scouting had to come first.
Brown hopes the tasks associated with the star party can be divided, with local residents handling things to do with the site -- assuming one can be found -- and thereby freeing Dilday of having to do such long distance coordination so he can focus on the astronomers attending and programs for the event.
As for Dilday, he's looking for darkness.
"An alternate MASP site could be a mowed field or five or more acres in the community," he wrote Brown. "Availability of water and electricity is desirable though not mandatory. Most important is the absence of lights. A simple test is to stand in the field at night and look around. If no lights are visible, or the only lights visible can be extinguished during the event, the field has potential."
MASP does have alternate sites available, but they are not near Robbins.
"So far the 'confirmed' sites are not in the Robbins neighborhood," Dilday said. "The neighborhood of the traditional site is preferred. I am eager to share with attendees where MASP will be this year."
His Web site (www.masp.org) now says "New site; no sandspurs" -- and the mayor of Robbins has been out at night looking for a dark hillside with a good view of eternity.
John Chappell can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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