VIsitors to Hatteras Island are well aware of the available daytime activities available, from fishing to surfing or just sunning on the beach. Without the hustle and bustle of other popular beaches, Hatteras Island still offers visitors an opportunity to explore the flora and fauna of the unique barrier island landscape. The opportunity to enjoy the island doesn’t stop when the sun goes down, though. Once those reds, pinks, and purples of the sunset disappear over the Pamlico Sound, the stars come out to play.
According to the National Park Service, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is “one of the darkest skies east of the Mississippi River.”
“At Cape Hatteras National Seashore, ‘Half the Park is After Dark,’” says Steven Torpy, Interpretation Park Ranger at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. “If you look at a map of the Eastern half of the United States at night, you can see that it is awash with light pollution caused by areas oversaturated with light or with unshielded inefficient light design.”
The island’s distance from mainland North Carolina and populous cities lends itself in part to the unique nature of the Hatteras night sky.
“Many of America’s best night skies are west of the Mississippi River, but most of the population don’t live in the Rocky Mountain region or the Southwest deserts. This makes places such as Cape Hatteras, with its impressive and rare night skies, easily accessible to people from major cities like Norfolk, VA, Charlotte, NC, or Washington D.C. — more so than the deserts of Arizona- to see the Milky Way,” Torpy says.
There’s plenty of action in the night sky in the next few weeks:
- The Perseid meteor shower reached its maximum rate of activity on Aug. 13, but shooting stars associated with the shower are expected to be visible each night from now through Aug. 20.
- Occasionally, the little round, black shadows cast by Jupiter's four Galilean moons become visible in backyard telescopes as they cross the planet's disk. Observers in the Americas can see Europa's shadow transit the northern hemisphere of Jupiter — with the aid of a telescope — from 8:53 to 11:25 p.m. EDT on Saturday, Aug. 17.
- On Tuesday, Aug. 20, the "Demon Star" Algol in Perseus will be visible to the naked-eye beginning at 10 p.m. ETD, when it sits just above the northeastern horizon and reaches its minimum brightness of magnitude 3.4. By 3 a.m. EDT, it will be more than halfway up the eastern sky and will have brightened to its usual magnitude of 2.1.
For those wanting to venture out beyond the villages to take in the stars, there are a number of options.
“The grounds of Cape Hatteras National Seashore remain open at night. A potential stargazer should start by looking for places removed from the lights of the populated villages on the seashore. Places such as the parking lots for Off-Road Vehicle ramps 43 and 44 and the northern end of Ocracoke Island are good places to just look into the night,” says Torpy. “During the summer months, when off-road vehicles must be off the beach by 9 p.m., people are more than welcome to park their cars at the ORV ramp entrances, walk to the beach and look at the stars.”
Another option available to visitors and locals alike is the “Dark Skies Over Hatteras” program offered by the National Park Service. Torpy is one of the Dark Sky Rangers on Hatteras. The program is offered from Memorial Day through Aug. 27.
“In this 60 minute program, park rangers educate visitors about stars and planets, but also share with why humans and animals such as sea turtles need the night, about how humans have used night skies and continue to benefit and enjoy dark skies in addition to how light pollution is impacting the dark sky natural resource,” he says. “Visitors should bring a beach chair or blanket and bug spray. While not required, it is a good idea to bring along a red flashlight or one with a red light option to protect everyone’s collective night vision.”
The park rangers are more than happy to help point out night sky objects or identify when night sky objects such as the International Space Station, a meteor shower, or their Zodiac sign will appear on the Eastern horizon, he says.
In addition to keeping dark areas of the park open for stargazing and the Night Sky over Hatteras Program, the National Park Service is also actively working to make the skies even darker and are doing so in cooperation with the villages on the island.
“Cape Hatteras National Seashore is in the process to retrofit outdoor lights within the park boundary to protect the dark sky resource,” Torpy says. “By taking these measures, America’s first National Seashore is working to become an International Dark-Sky Park.”
Stargazing doesn’t require fancy equipment or a depth of knowledge to enjoy, Torpy says.
“Go outside, turn off your flashlights, and look up! You don’t have to buy a telescope unless you want a closer look at a star or planet. If the Moon is partially covered by darkness, with a pair of binoculars, you can see the craters and mountains on the Moon in definition and if they are powerful enough, you might see four of Jupiter’s Moons as the astronomer Galileo did or Saturn’s rings,” he says. “You can find a good star chart app on your smartphone device to help identify constellations (although you should be careful on how bright your phone display setting is so you don’t impact your night vision). Finding one constellation is a good road map to finding other constellations or the North Star, beginning with finding the Big Dipper.”
He says, “Eighty percent of the population can’t see the Milky Way because of the light pollution from poorly designed or poorly used lamp posts and outdoor lighting hiding the original light show that night has given humanity every evening.”
So turn off the lights, head outside and take a moment to look up at the incredible night sky. While you are admiring the great swath of stars that makes up our Milky Way Galaxy, you just may see a shooting star.