7 Dec 2021
Written in the Stars
From dazzling distant planets, glorious galaxies, captivating constellations, and mesmerizing moon phases, there’s nothing quite so transfixing as the night sky and all the marvels it holds. As a smaller city, Asheville and the surrounding areas produce minimal light pollution which ensures some of the “darkest skies” in the region and makes stargazing a must-try activity. While stargazing is enjoyable year-round and most ideal conditions come down to pure luck, the stars certainly align in the colder winter months.
The cold air holds less moisture than balmy summer air, combating the haze and producing crisp, clear conditions. The longer winter nights also contribute to ideal stargazing conditions since the sky gets fully dark long before bedtime, leaving more time for the entire family to gaze up in wonder at the night sky together. It’s also true that premier viewing spots like the iconic Blue Ridge Parkway and regional State Parks are far less busy during the winter, making it less crowded and much more convenient. The only real caveat to winter stargazing is braving the bitter temperatures, but it’s nothing a cute winter coat and a full mug of hot chocolate can’t handle.
The winter months are also when some of the most remarkable phenomena are visible in the sky. Most of the time, you can appreciate these marvels without any sort of magnifying equipment, but a common pair of binoculars (even ones designated for daytime activities like bird watching) can make some of the details pop. You can also bring a telescope along if available to you, which will provide the clearest and closest picture possible. Here are just a few of the awe-inspiring sights that are always visible in the evening sky during the winter months:
- Orion: Named after the giant hunter who was the son of Poseidon, the sea god, in Greek mythology, Orion is one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky. Comprising two of the ten brightest stars— Rigel and Betelgeuse, Orion actually brings to mind a hunter. Four prominent stars form a rectangle representing his shoulders and feet. The top left star is Betelgeuse, which is noticeably red in color. This supergiant star is near the end of its life and expected to turn into a supernova in the next 100,000 years.
- Sirius: According to Greek mythology, Sirius was the dog of the hunter Orion whose name literally translates to “glowing” or “scorcher.” If you follow the line of Orion’s belt down and to the left, you’ll easily find what’s known as the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius is colloquially known as the dog star because it’s in the constellation Canis Major, the Great Dog. When Sirius is on the horizon on scorching summer mornings, it heralds the sultry “dog days” of August, but when it’s high in the evening sky, it confirms that winter has come.
- Cassiopeia: Named after the beautiful but vain queen who was the mother of Andromeda in Greek mythology, this constellation is easily recognizable due to its distinctive “W” shape formed by five bright stars. Holding the title of the 25th largest constellation in the night sky, Cassiopeia is also associated with the annual Perseid meteor shower which peaks around mid August. If you trace the path of the Perseid meteors backward, they'll appear to originate between the two constellations that serve as the radiant point of the famous meteor shower—Cassiopeia and Perseus.
- Andromeda Galaxy: Named after the beautiful daughter of Queen Cassiope and eventual wife of Perseus in Greek mythology, the Andromeda Galaxy is entirely separate from our own Milky Way and is the most distant thing a person on earth can see with the naked eye. Since it is the nearest spiral galaxy to us, scientists and astronomers study the Andromeda Galaxy to understand the origin and evolution of other such galaxies. Astronomers sometimes call it Messier 31 or M31, as it was the 31st on a famous list of fuzzy objects compiled by the French astronomer Charles Messier in the 17th century. While technically visible throughout the year, the viewing window improves through winter as the galaxy is high overhead at 8 PM in November, December, and January.
Shoot for the Moon
During a New Moon (and in the days immediately before and after it) the sky's the darkest of all the phases, making it one of the best times to stargaze. While beautiful in its own right, light pollution from the moon can obstruct your view of the stars.
The next New Moon will actually be the first one of 2022, so mark your calendars for Sunday, January 2! In addition to watching out for the New Moon, you can also plan your stargazing around celestial events. These are the remaining ones to check out before year’s end:
- December 2-22, 2021: Comet Leonard Visits Our Night Skies
- December 6-8, 2021: The Moon Glides Past Venus & Saturn
- December 8-9: Conjunction of the Moon with Jupiter
- December 13-14: The Geminid Meteor Shower Peaks
- December 18: The Long Night Full Moon
- December 21: Northern Hemisphere Winter Solstice
- December 22: James Webb Space Telescope Launch
- December 28-30: Farewell Venus (and 2021) and Hello Mercury!
If stargazing is new to you, or you’re just not quite sure where to go to see out-of-this-world spectacles, we’ve pulled a small list together of some of our favorite places to stargaze along the Blue Ridge Parkway:
- Graveyard Fields at Milepost 418.8 (35 miles south of Asheville) is one of the best places to see the Milky Way in WNC.
- Wiseman's View in Linville Gorge at Milepost 317.4 (60 miles northeast of Asheville) offers great views of the stars and other strange luminations like the legendary Brown Mountain Lights.
- Mt. Pisgah Trailhead at Milepost 407.6 (19 miles south of Asheville) offers an amazing hike and views of Cold Mountain to the west & Looking Glass Rock and Frying Pan Mountain Tower to the southwest.
- Tanbark Ridge Overlook at Milepost 376.7 (12 miles north of Asheville) offers distant views of High Swan, High Knob, and Lane Pinnacle and is a favorite of seasoned stargazers.
- Craggy Dome Overlook at Milepost 364.1 (25 miles north of Asheville) offers gorgeous unobstructed views of the stars as well as epic views of Craggy Dome which is blanketed in purple heath in the warmer seasons and snow in the cold winter months.
Observatories, Dark Sky Parks & Clubs:
If you’re looking for a community of like-minded astronomy enthusiasts, the Astronomy Club of Asheville hosts meetings on the first Thursday of the month (except for January and July) and regular stargazing sessions at UNCA’s Lookout Observatory, Grassland Mountain Observatory in Madison County, and other spots (including Tanbark Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway mentioned previously). Due to covid, many of the regularly scheduled in-person meetings have been changed to virtual meetings. In order to join up and receive invitations to club-only events, use the club’s loaner telescope, take advantage of discounts on astronomy publications and more, individual dues are $25 annually, families are $30 annually, and a lifetime membership is $500. However, you don’t have to be a member to attend the club’s meetings or public stargazes.
Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains at the Mayland Earth to Sky Park in Burnsville, this nationally-recognized observatory takes stargazing to another level. Open to the public, visitors can opt for a 2-hour stargazing session that offers a c
hance to experience the night sky as they never have before. The Sam Scope at the observatory is the largest telescope in the Southeast dedicated for public use. Enjoy a spectacular 360-degree view of the moon, planets, and stars at an elevation of 2,736 feet. True to its namesake, lighting is kept to a minimum at night to preserve the dark sky for viewing.
Initially developed in 1962 by NASA as the east coast facility to track satellites and monitor space flights, The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) stands today as a non-profit educational research center known for its massive radio telescopes.
Located deep within the Pisgah National Forest near Brevard (roughly an hour away from Asheville), this hidden space center gem is a must-see. Make a day of it, and cruise the 76-mile Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway chock full of waterfalls, picnic spots, and hiking trails. The expansive 30-building campus is dotted with all sizes of telescopes, well-protected from man-made light pollution and radio interference, and is recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association as a “Dark Sky” Park. PARI attracts curious tourists and acclaimed scientists from around the world, and it welcomes people of all ages to visit and become immersed in the world of science and technology.
For museum lovers, there are also exhibit galleries displaying NASA Space Shuttle artifacts and collections of rare meteorites, gems, and minerals. PARI hosts multiple stargazes each month, and it gives visitors a chance to stargaze during SkyTrek Observing Sessions (held on select Friday and Saturday nights throughout the year).
The stars lead the way for ancient journeys and uncovered truths about the universe and humanity to historians, theologians, and scientists alike. We still look up to the sky in fascination today, though our interest has certainly evolved much like the galaxies above us. To some, the cosmos is a source of mystery, a divine revelation, a key to alien conspiracies, while to others, it’s a breathtaking sight that gives you perspective on your place in the universe. It begs the question, why do we look to the stars? Maybe the answer lies within us.
Planetary scientist and stardust expert, Dr. Ashley King, confirms that the old saying that we’re “made of stardust” is “totally 100% true: nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas.” You read that right. Most of the elements that make up the human body were formed in stars. Everything on Earth, from rocks, stones, water, crystals, to all living things like people, animals, insects, birds, fish, grass, trees, and flowers are made of stardust. Looking up at the stars reminds you that you are connected to the entire universe.