Virginia: Family Vacation Fun Stargazing in Virginia.
Each April International Astronomy Day and is observed in more than 12 countries. Astronomy clubs, planetariums, and other groups of sky watchers take this opportunity to provide information, resources, and encouragement in all facets of astronomy. Begun by amateur astronomers in northern California in 1973, the event has grown across North America and includes Virginia.
Stargazing with kids can be fun or it can be humbling. It all depends on getting everyone to agree which way is North. With no agreement there is no hope. Not surprising Virginia has numerous excellent locations for sky watching inside and out. Before trekking off with kids in tow and a telescope in a back pack it is time well spent to try sky watching inside. This action serves two purposes. It educates so when you are on your own the star hunting is easier and it involves the kids making future excursions more enjoyable. Keeping kids interested is important because the best stargazing often coincides with a crisp clear …translated cold night.
Virginia Inside Views
In Richmond the Science Museum of Virginia has hundreds of hand-on exhibits plus large-screen IMAX films and planetarium shows. Director of Astronomy, Ken Wilson, teaches the names and places of each season's major constellations and bright stars. The program explains how to spot planets; how to use a star map; how to distinguish sky phenomena like meteors, satellites, aurora, and zodiacal light; and how to use binoculars to get a closer look at nature's night sky wonders. (Richmond: Science Museum of Virginia/Ethyl IMAX Dome. 1-800-659-1727 or 1(804) 367-6552 www.smv.org)
Also at SMV monthly “Live Sky” planetarium shows are conducted. Each one is hosted by a science museum astronomer who provides a view of the current sky highlighting current sky events and pointing out prominent stars and constellations visible to the naked eye. Some nights the Richmond Astronomical Society sets up equipment in the parking lot of the museum. It is free and truly helpful for beginners. There is a weekly Virginia Skylines radio program that airs on WCVE - (88.9 FM) radio on Saturday evenings and to cover all bases a 24-hour Sky Watch telephone recorded hotline 1(804) 864-1411.
In Charlottesville the Museum of Natural History-UVA has stargazing programs at Ivy Creek Natural Area. Ed Murphy a UVA astronomer and member Charlottesville Astronomical Society often begins with a slide presentation and concludes with sky viewing that is fun for all ages. They provide a portable Sky Lab experience ideal for learning the basics. (Charlottesville: Museum of Natural History-UVA. 1(434) 977-1025 or www.vadm.org)
In Roanoke at the Center in the Square, the Science Museum of Western Virginia provides insider information about sky viewing. It is the home of the William B. Hopkins Planetarium. It has daily star shows, lectures, concerts and movies. (Roanoke: Science Museum of Western Virginia and the William B. Hopkins Planetarium. 1(540) 342-5710 or www.smw.org)
Another option to compliment sky watching is Virginia Air and Space Center at Hampton Roads. It is the official visitor center for NASA Langley Research Center and great field trip no matter the age. Onsite are more than 100 exhibits related to the skys and space. Favorites for kids of all ages include the Apollo 12 Command Module and moon rock. (Hampton: Virginia Air and Space Center 1(757) 727-0900. www.vasc.org)
Seaside Sky Views
Stargazing is terrific at the water’s edge and Virginia’s Eastern Shore is no exception. The NASA Visitors Center on Wallops Island provides another dimension to sky viewing. Visiting the center connects the science with the activity of sky watching. It is a great excursion for young space scientists and their stargazing companions. The Visitor Center has a multicultural astronomy program that invites viewers to travel back in time to discover the mysteries of the ancient and not so ancient civilizations and their connections to the stars and the planets. Think about Stonehenge and how about the Sphinx? What is the connection between Orion and the Mayans? What about the North Star and freedom? (NASA Visitor Center. Located on the Eastern Shore this is a great learning pad for families. 1(757) 824-2050. Call for details. 1(757) 824-2298 or www.wff.nasa.gov. Special Note: This facility is the location of summer months. Virginia Space Flight Academy, a weeklong residential summer camp for students interested in learning about the science and engineering of rockets and space flight. 1(757) 824-3800, 1-866-757-7223, 1-866-75SPACE) or firstname.lastname@example.org)
The water’s edge of Virginia is ideal to watch the moon break and spot the first constellations of the evening. In the area of Wallops is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. It covers more than 9,000 acres and stops at the Maryland border. During the spring, summer and autumn rangers provide walks and talks for visitors. During the winter months the skies provide much to view along miles of beaches, dunes and pine-lined trails. The night sky is really big and constellations seem to pop into view.
Wildlife Adventures located on Chincoteague Island provides terrific sunrise and sunset activities for families and stargazing may be added in the near future. They also know the very best places to stargaze. They have five children of their own and are experts in squelching kid-boredom. They have ideas for fun for ages 4 to 85+.
Virginia Outside Viewing
Getaway for a weekend and stargaze in the process. The best places are void of light pollution. Hungry Mother State Park near Marion is ideal with more than 2,000 acres of natural beauty surrounding a 108-acre lake. When night arrives it gets dark, really dark. The best viewing is at the top of Molly’s Nob. During the summer month’s rangers lead groups to the top for stargazing. Off-season guests just follow the trail. (Hungry Mother State Park. 1(540) 781-7400 or www.state.va.us/~dcr) Note: Virginia residents are eligible for a discount. For information. 1(540) 930-2424 or for cabin reservations at all state parks tol-free 1-800-933-7275.
Another sure bet for glorious night skies is Grayson Highlands State Park also near Marion. The lack of humidity and the awesome elevation, 3.900 feet makes this spot the choice of many astronomy clubs. No cabins onsite, this is the place for more hardy families to escape. The best way to find out about organized stargazing is to contact the park. (Grayson Highlands State Park. 1 (540) 579-7092 or www.state.va.us/~dcr)
Located only 15 minutes from Grayson Highlands State Park, Brooks Haven is a modern home with a rustic flair. Tucked away on 32 private acres it is a great vacation get-a-way for a large family because the house accommodates ten on two has two levels. Stay up after dark and watch the crystal clear sky sparkle with endless diamonds -- perfect for stargazers. A bonus is the gigantic sand box under the upper deck and pets are welcome. (Brooks Haven. 1(336) 977-0060)
Also in Grayson County close to Mount Rogers National Recreation Area the Birds Nest Cottage is perfect for stargazing and children are welcome. Located on a working Christmas Tree farm The Birds Nest will accommodate ten, is fully and comfortably furnished. (Birds Nest Cottage Toll-free 1-888- 698-9907, 1(540) 579-7692)
Fairy Stone State Park in Patrick County is also a great place for sky gazing. During the summer months sometimes there are organized evening programs along the shore of the 168-acre lake. The park has campsites as well as housekeeping cabins and a lodge. Insider tip: Cabin #2 and cabin # 8 are log cabins on the lake. (Fairy Stone State Park. 1(540) 930-2424)
Related Resources and Activities.
Ashland: Keeble Observatory.
Located at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland is the only observatory in Central Virginia that has a 12-inch reflecting telescope. Their website has plenty of information and sources. 1(804) 752-7317 or http://www.rmc.edu/academics/phys/keeble/
They have an abundant amount of information. Most of it more technical than needed for a family star watch adventure. Two are worthy of bookmarks. http://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov and http://science.msfc.nasa.gov
This company is well suited to families and having fun. They will provide a 10% discount for families if mention you found this through Virginia.org and/or the FamilyTravelFiles.com. More information from www.jcherrix.tripod.com, 1(757) 336-6811, 1-866- 252-9257. Special note: In July each year they conduct a special pony swim tour.
This organization is located in Virginia, near Washington D.C. Their motto is To Observe and to Help Others Observe. They aim to benefit everyone who wishes to learn more about astronomy. There primary purpose is providing enjoyment and education to the public through amateur astronomy. In addition to the official observing sites, there are several other places near Washington, DC where NOVAC members like to go to observe. Occasionally, NOVAC hosts or participates in public activities at Franklin Park and Sky Meadows State Park. They are always looking for members. For details Contact Bill Burton for details. www.novac.com/sites/sites.htm
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