Partying with the stars on Mount Mitchell

Lingering clouds made for a spectacular sunset but crashed the star party at Mount Mitchell State Park.

Clouds lingering on an approaching cold front made for a spectacular sunset at Mount Mitchell State Park Saturday, but they also crashed what had been billed as the “highest star party ever in the eastern United States.”

The intrepid stargazers of the Blue Ridge Astronomy Group promised to try again next Saturday (Sept. 15) in the summit parking area at 8 p.m. Telescopes mounted at more than 6,000 feet, with minimal light pollution, promise to reveal some impressive cosmic sights. “We’ll get above atmosphere. We’ll be looking at lots of different things – galaxies, nebulas, globular star clusters – and there will be a couple of planets…and earth-orbiting satellites,” group spokesman Bob Hampton told the Asheville Citizen-Times.

The Burnsville-based club is nothing if not devoted. Despite afternoon drizzles and heavy fog, Hampton and his colleagues arrived at Mount Mitchell about 6 p.m. to gaze at the Appalachian horizon for any glimpse of lifting weather. It didn’t happen. Long term, they’ve made plans to mount a 34-inch, handmade telescope on one of the lower peaks in Yancy County, but the opportunity to view from the highest peak in the east was irresistible. And, park rangers supported the opportunity to add astronomy to the free natural science programs already offered at the park.

About a half-dozen state parks now offer occasional stargazing programs, and they’ve been extremely popular. (Astronomers from the venerable Morehead Planetarium have staged events at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area.) State parks are obvious venues, so often being in rural areas with relatively little light interference from neighboring towns. In fact, Pettigrew State Park in northeastern North Carolina has been recognized as one of the darkest areas in the mid-Atlantic region. The clear skies of winter offer the best stargazing opportunities, and the state parks system’s events calendar here will keep track of them for you.

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