Sunday, October 6, 2013

Northern Virginia Astronomer's Club and The Mountain Institute

Thanks to its unique location within the Monongahela National Forest, the Spruce Knob Mountain Center attracts not only school groups looking for a wilderness experience, but also an assorted bunch of other groups. These include cross-country runners, college survival groups, men and women's retreats, and - thanks to our isolation from cities and light pollution - astronomers. In late August, hundreds of amateur astronomers from the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club camped out on the High Plains for the Almost Heaven Star Party. As a blurb from their website puts it:

"A truly dark sky is a sight that few get a chance to see. For amateur astronomers who are used to backyard astronomy in the light-polluted suburbs, the sky at Spruce Knob will be an experience that you won’t forget. While the trip takes some time, it will be worth it. However, if your idea of roughing it is a hotel that doesn’t offer turn-down service, you might want to pass. While the amenities at The Mountain Institute make this far from a primitive site, camping is not for everyone. We recommend that you come prepared and have reasonable camping experience in order to fully enjoy AHSP."

This year's event was a sold-out success, which meant that our kitchen stayed busy as staff provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner to AHSP stargazers who had opted for a meal option. After working in the kitchen, many staff wandered out into the high plains to mingle with the observers and peer through their telescopes into the heavens above. Since astronomy is a part of the curriculum for school groups, the AHSP is a great chance for TMI staff to get acquainted with constellations. 

To give you a sense of just how awesome the skygazing can be on the High Meadows of Spruce Knob, here's a collection of photos from NOVAC member Bob Traube, a regular visitor to Spruce Knob who took these photos over the 4th of July weekend. The descriptions of photos are his as well. Thanks to the staff and participants of NOVAC and AHSP who make the August experience terrific for everyone!

This is the amazing Andromeda Galaxy.  Its full extent covers three full moons.  Designated as M31, the shot also includes two companion galaxies, M32 and M110.  The "M" designation identifies them as members of the famed Messier List. 

This image presents the North American nebula on the left and the Pelican Nebula on the right.  These clouds of Hydrogen gas glow red from the absorption of Ultraviolet light from nearby stars and remission of that energy as the red light we see.  Both are located near the star Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan also know as the Northern Cross.

This circle (actually a sphere) of glowing gas is the remnant of an ancient supernova shockwave.  As the energy of that violent explosion encounters interstellar gas, it causes it to glow,  revealing its progress.  The bright star on the upper right is 52 Cygni, placing the nebula in the constellation Cygnus.

These and the following photos are shots of a passing thunderstorm.

 As Bob Traube wrote, "It is no wonder why we enjoy our visits to TMI so much!"


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