August: Astro Education in WNC

August 2009

Astro Education in WNC

By Calvin L. Chrisman

Much has been written in the last few weeks about the 40th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing. It was an historic event that still stirs the imagination, but few people realize that the words we heard: “The Eagle has landed” and “One small step for man….” were transmitted to Earth through a massive metal monster located in the Pisgah National Forest roughly thirty miles as the crow flies from Black Mountain. These antennae are in existence today and are a part of the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI).

PARI's Smiley greeted Soviet overflights during the Cold War.
PARI’s Smiley greeted Soviet overflights during the Cold War.

PARI is a not-for-profit public foundation that was established to provide hands-on educational and research opportunities for a broad cross-section of users. It reaches students ranging from K-12 to post-doctoral levels. Its radio and optical telescopes can be operated on site and remotely over the Internet. The site was originally built to track satellites and manned missions by NASA and was turned over to the Defense Department after the end of the Apollo program. During the Cold War, the operators of the site knew that whoever they were watching was looking back at them. In a friendly (?) hello or a bit of a thumb-on-the-nose, they painted a smiley face on one of the antenna that would have shown up in satellite photos of the site. It is still in place today. The facility offers many programs and tours for visitors. PARI can be found on NC-215 which can be reached at the end of a beautiful drive either on the Blue Ridge Parkway or off of US 64 going West out of Brevard. Exact directions and upcoming programs are available on the PARI website (http://www.pari.edu).

August is the month for the annual Perseids meteor shower. The meteoroids, small bits of cosmic debris that form this meteor shower, are the remnants of the tail of Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle which orbits the Sun every 130 years. This year, the shower will be most active on the nights of August 11-12 and August 12-13. The best viewing times will be between about 11 p.m. and dawn each night, but the shower will be active (to a lesser extent) several days before and after. The waning last-quarter Moon will brighten the sky and make observing less than perfect, but many meteors should be visible if the weather cooperates.

For those of you with telescopes, we are entering a period where observing of the planet Jupiter will be excellent. Jupiter is rising early in the evening sky and, by the end of August, will reach its highest point in the sky by about midnight. Apparently, Jupiter has recently been struck by an asteroid or comet. There is a new dark spot on its surface which indicates this event. The spot is visible in small telescopes and images are available at Spaceweather.com. Its four moons that are visible through small telescopes (discovered by Galileo 400 years ago) will put on an interesting show moving across the face of the planet; casting shadows; moving behind Jupiter and appearing on either side of the planet. Tables that give times for these events are available on the Internet and in astronomy magazines. If you have access to a telescope it is worth the time to investigate.

Clear Skies!

Leave a Comment