Robbins Ready for Star Party
As skies clear and the mercury drops, hundreds of eyes will be pressed to telescopes on a hill outside Robbins.
From all over America, and even other countries, stargazers are assembling once again to enjoy one of Robbins' greatest natural resources -- the clearest, darkest skies between Maine and the Florida Keys.
Every October, during the dark of the moon when stars are at their brightest overhead, hundreds of astronomers come for an unusual kind of party.
They call it a star party, and organizer John Dilday defines it as "a congenial gathering of astronomers, photographers, scientists and other night owls, convened in a dark park under clear skies for the purpose of looking up."
This year's Mid-Atlantic Star Party (MASP) starts Monday when tent-toting stargazers begin showing up for a week of nights staring at distant, ancient splendors and sharing notes and techniques with brother and sister astronomers.
They camp out at a campground provided by Brothers of the Horizon, a local, mostly African-American motorcycle club. The club came to MASP's rescue a few years back when work at their original campsite, the Occoneechee Scout Reservation just south of Robbins, nearly forced cancellation.
This year's MASP starts on Columbus Day and runs through the following Saturday night, Oct. 17. The campground has hookups for trailers and plenty of tent space. Visitors are welcome, but there are a few "rules of the night."
Since white light tends to blind the eye, guests are asked to mask or turn off car lights when approaching the campground off Lakey Siding Road. MASP's traditional direction signs (white, with a red star and a red arrow pointing the way) will be posted roadside.
Red lights only are permitted on and around the observing field after sunset. This is to help preserve night vision of the other attendees.
"If you do not know how to cover your lights with red filter material or how to disconnect the interior, trunk and door lights of your vehicle, please ask for help," Dilday says. "If you must drive away at night, you must park in the separate parking field so you can depart without your lights blinding the remaining observers."
Many newer vehicles do not have headlights that can be turned off while the motor is running; however, it is an easy matter to mask most of the lenses with "duct" tape, leaving a red-cellophaned slit open in the center. Many shops in downtown Robbins will have instructions and material to cover flashlights, including at Town Hall and Deep River Coffee Co.
Arriving at the campground before dark is the easiest. Clear, cold nights, expected by Tuesday, are best observing weather, but visitors should dress warmly.
Setup for campers in observing areas is on a first-come, first-served basis. The observing field is split into two areas: a "scopes-only" area and an open observing area. As the name suggests, the scopes only area is for telescopes set up without support vehicles, tents or campers. Participants with a support tent, camper, sleeping tent or car that they need near their equipment must set up in the open observing area.
Clear skies this week should mean a big attendance at MASP 2009.
"The skies at the site are just about as dark as they can get in the eastern United States," Dilday says. "The location affords views of many deep-sky objects, including the Milky Way, some of the Southern sky objects, good planetary views as well as great observing of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters."
Dilday started MASP in 1995, and says he had encouragement from Gayle Riggsbee, Jim Presley and others at that year's Winter Star Party in Florida. It came out of his desire for a gathering in North Carolina where astronomers could share the fellowship that only a substantial gathering can provide.
This year's party begins on one sad note. Longtime volunteer and supporter Bill Jacobs died just before last Christmas. The 2008 MASP was his final bow, handling registration at the gate with his brother, Tom. The two had worked as volunteers for a decade, the first people a visitor would see in the dim red light of the registration desk.
The best memorial to Bill Jacobs would be a long line registering for his beloved star party, Dilday says.
"Come to the Mid-Atlantic Star Party and share the experience," Dilday says. "Come for a day, come for a night or come for the entire week."
The gate will open about noon Monday.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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