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Triangle astronomy club partners with Virginia state park

Posted July 22, 2015

Sky watchers search for comet PANSTARRS near sunset. (Credit: CHAOS)

Staunton River State Park (SRSP) in Scottsburg, Va., was named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) in mid July. The park joins the Mayland Community College Blue Ridge Observatory and Star Park near Spruce Pine, N.C., as the only parks in the Southeastern United States with the designation.

The IDA established the Dark Sky Park program in 2001 to recognize stewardship of the night sky through stringent controls on outdoor lighting along with community outreach.

SRSP's path to recognition by the IDA began in 2009 when Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society (CHAOS) President Jamie Hanzak began searching for a nearby dark site for the astronomy club to observe the night sky.

“I first contacted the park after finding it in blue on a dark sky map” said Hanzak. “We did our first small star party there in September 2011 and decided to do one in the spring as well.”

To date, the club has collaborated with the park to host four star parties since 2011, with a fifth planned for October. The star parties have attracted serious amateur astronomers from Florida to New York. The park has become a year-round destination for astronomers and astrophotographers from CHAOS and beyond. The club continues to support the park with quarterly light level readings.

Attention from amateur astronomers, and the tourism dollars they bring to Halifax County, Virginia, helped Virginia State Parks officials along with town commissioners recognize the value of the vanishing resource they had.

“Our dark skies are an important natural resource, and one that we strive to protect just as we do our lands, waters and wildlife. Becoming a Dark Sky Park will ensure that generations of guests will be able to observe and learn about the heavens above,” said Park Manager Adam Layman.

Layman and his staff established an outdoor lighting policy which minimizes light pollution. They established an outreach program to the local community.

CHAOS also donated telescopes which may be checked out like a library book by any park visitor. After a brief lesson on operation of the telescopes form Park rangers, guests also provide a brief lesson on operation of the telescope along with a copy of a popular introductory observational astronomy book.

Guests are then free to explore the sky on their own through out the night.

Staunton River State Park is approximately two hours from the Triangle, 25 miles north of the North Carolina border.

Overnight accommodations in campsites along with historic cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps are available for reservation.

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.


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