Car lights come on and a cry goes out: “Look away! Look away!” Bright white lights and stargazing don’t mix.
Local astronomy enthusiasts wander the parking lot atop Pilot Mountain, peering into eyepieces and getting quick lessons in what they see. Members of the Forsyth Astronomical Society (FAS) have set up an array of telescopes that let people get a close-up look at everything from the craters of the moon to the stars of nebula hundreds of light years away.
“This is the best place in the Triad,” says Steve Childers, a past FAS president and retired Wake Forest medical professor. “All those lights down there would be killing us, but we’re above them all.”
Viewings at Pilot Mountain date back decades, to 1984. The club itself dates back much further, to 1937. That makes it the oldest astronomy club in North Carolina, according to current FAS President David Morgan, a retired real estate appraiser and instructor.
“We’ve been going strong ever since,” he says. “We’re extremely active in public observation.”
Morgan has been fascinated by realms beyond earth since his boyhood in the 1960s, the dawn of manned space exploration. He first joined the FAS in 1987 and holds a lifetime membership. He and his fellow club members share their enthusiasm with curious stargazers, students, scouts, and church groups.
The FAS stages regular public viewings like the Leap Day event on Pilot Mountain. It also hosts special viewings for remarkable astronomical phenomena, such as comets. A viewing of Comet Hyakutake drew about 4,500 people to Hobby Park in 1996.
Club members range in age from high school students to retirees such as Dr. Tom Mutton, a surgeon who joined in the mid ’70s. The most recent Pilot Mountain viewing brought out brand new members like Ron Harold, a CPA from Lewisville. He got interested after watching shows about stars and black holes on Netflix.
“I just got obsessed with it,” he says. “For the last couple of weeks I’ve been shopping for telescopes and joined the astronomical society.”
As the sky turns orange on the horizon, electric lights spread out below Pilot Mountain in every direction. The glow of a waxing crescent moon dominates the evening sky, making Venus and a smattering of stars appear comparatively faint. Telescopes counter the moon’s glare, turning distant flickers into dazzling explosions of light and color.
The FAS also holds regular public viewings at Kaleidium and Stone Mountain. It hosts a workshop at Kaleidium every year before Christmas to advise parents on the best telescopes for children. The club meets at Kaleidium North at 7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month. Annual memberships cost $35, but visitors are welcome to meetings.
Guest speakers include NASA ambassadors and local astronomy professors. Past speakers include Clyde Tombaugh, the astronomer who discovered Pluto in 1930.
Andrea Nichols, a Yadkinville librarian who lives in East Bend, has been an active FAS member for the past 20 years apart from her time living out of state.
“You always have someone you can learn from,” she says. “There’s always a variety of new people coming to the meetings. And they give you doughnuts! What more could you ask for?”
For more information, visit fas37.org.