HMNs Enjoy JMU Planetarium Program and Night Hike to Learn About Dark Skies, Past and Present

shanilShanil Virani, Director of the John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University and Assistant Professor in the JMU Department of Physics and Astronomy, provided a captivating two hour program at the planetarium for Headwaters Master Naturalists and other invited guests on Sunday evening, March 5.

The topic was the profound changes in the number of stars in our night skies compared to just a generation ago and how light pollution from excessive and inappropriate lighting has brought us to this situation. Examples of poorly planned lighting in Harrisonburg and elsewhere were shown and Virani noted that studies show that more light only adds to glare and energy waste and reduces our security.

We then were shown the major constellations visible in our winter night skies. Virani passed out cardboard tubes which we used to count stars visible in various portions of the planetarium dome (sky). This was done in eight areas of the sky under fully dark conditions and then under ‘bright’, city sky conditions. Star totals were summed up for each condition and when a formula was used allowing for the narrow tube, the total number of stars in the ‘sky’ was calculated. Estimates exceeded 4500 stars visible in our original, pre-development night skies.

Shenandoah Mountain Nighttime Star Hike

nightsky1.crop.avA night sky hike was provided on Wednesday, March 8 as a follow-up to the planetarium program. Malcolm Cameron led seven Master Naturalists and friends on a half mile round trip hike on Shenandoah Mountain in the George Washington National Forest. We began the hike on a forest road to a clearing and arrived at sunset.

Venus was the first planet observed, shining bright at sunset. Within 15 minutes, Sirius showed up in the southeast. Then as time went on, Orion, Taurus, the Big Dipper, Polaris, the Pleiades and Cassiopeia were observed. Some sky glow or glare was noted from the direction of Harrisonburg and Staunton, but overall these dark skies were a marked improvement over what we see in local cities and towns.

Mother Nature also rewarded us with the sights and sounds of a couple of woodcocks in elaborate flight displays above the meadow.

We concluded the sky viewing after one hour in a chilly wind, but happy to have seen a grand celestial display more like what our grandparents would have viewed.

– Malcolm Cameron, Cohort III, March 2017