After a bit of club business, the guest speaker steps to the podium. Following a quick apology for running late—he got turned around on Queens Road (who hasn’t)—Hap Griffin begins his talk on NASA and its latest manned spacecraft project, Orion.
The retired vice president from South Carolina Educational Television is now an astrophotographer with credits in Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines, and his presentation features behind-the-scenes images that he has captured during various trips to NASA facilities. One photo shows Griffin at the helm of space shuttle Endeavour (it was firmly on the ground) and in another he’s on the roof of the largest single-story structure in the United States—The Vehicle Assembly Building at Kenney Space Center. Griffin concludes by showing photographic proof of what happens when you mount your remote digital camera too close to the pad during a rocket launch.
This was the January meeting of the Charlotte Amateur Astronomy Club.
Each month, 90 or so like-minded individuals get together to discuss club news and listen to speakers covering topics like black holes and galaxies far, far away.
Jim Gaiser, president of the CAAC, spoke with us about the club, where to find the best views of the night sky around Charlotte, and what happens the first time someone views the rings around Saturn.
Besides monthly meetings, what other events does the CAAC hold?
We plan six public outreach events around Charlotte every year that are open to the public. The first one is usually in March. The biggest is the event at Fisher Farms in Davidson. We set up eight to 10 scopes, and we’ll have maybe 200 people show up. We’ll show them Jupiter, and they’re looking at the same four moons that Galileo saw 460 years ago.
We also have 12 Star Parties each year. Those are for members and guests. We get together at our site in Lancaster (Gayle H. Riggsbee Observatory). We have two hours of training on our scopes for newbies in the afternoon. We also have a mentor program where we’ll pair a new person with a more experienced member.
What do you have at the observatory?
We have five club-owned scopes. We’ve recently retrofitted our 24-inch reflector to be a “go-to” scope, meaning you tell the computer where you want it to go. We also have a 16-inch reflector and an 8-inch refractor. Members of the club that have been trained are free to use the scopes anytime they want. The site is four acres. We have a picnic table and grill. It’s just a very pleasant location.
Editor's note: the Gayle Riggsbee Observatory also has a warm-up room with refrigerator and microwave, bathrooms with showers, and a classroom.
Where do you suggest for naked-eye sky viewing around Charlotte?
The best place near Charlotte is Fisher Farm Park. Looking west you’re clear of the lights from Gastonia. Down by Ardrey Kell High School, any place south of Mathews you’ll get a clear view west.
What are the key events we should look up for this year?
Jupiter is really good this year. It rises after 9 p.m. and is out all night. Also look for two meteor showers: The Persieds peak around August 11 or 12. Since it’s August, though, there’s a lot of humidity in the air. The Geminids in December are really nice because it’s clearer (less moisture in the air). This year they’ll peak on December 13 and 14. It’s a little chilly, but you just grab your sleeping bag and a lawn chair and look up. And the moon phase will be great for viewing the Geminids—waxing cresent. We open up our site in Lancaster to the public for these.
Do you need to have experience in astronomy to join?
No. We currently have about 130 members on the books. There’s about 30 percent turnover—most are newbies. They may have a pair of binoculars or a telescope they got at Christmas and never used it. They ask, “What can I see with this?” We’ll get it set up for them and say, “Here’s what you can see.” We’ll do this right where we have our meetings.
You can always tell when someone looks in a telescope and sees Saturn for the first time. They say “Oh My God!” and the veterans just look at each other—we got another one.
The Charlotte Amateur Astronomy Club has been watching the sky since 1954. Their monthly meetings always welcome newbies and include an opportunity to speak with a club officer after the presentation. Meetings are held at Myers Park Baptist Church, 1900 Queens Rd., on the third Friday of each month (except December). For information about club membership, outreach events , or Star Parties, come to a meeting or contact one of the club officers. And next time you're looking to spend a night under the stars, these three destinations are always great options.