Five years ago, Cape Fear Museum (CFM) agreed to partake in North Carolina’s Statewide Star Party. Jameson McDermott, a museum educator, recalls setting up the first event. The NC Science Fair, with help from the NC Space Grant, had launched the debut Statewide Star Party the year before, and they wanted to expand the event to southeastern NC. They told McDermott and CFM to plan for about 200 people, maximum. Airlie Gardens agreed to host, Cape Fear Astronomical Society joined in to provide telescopes, and everything was set.
“The night of the event, we had over 1,000 people,” McDermott says. “We had people parking all the way down Airlie Road and walking in. . . . It was chaotic. And it was wonderful.”
Since the overwhelmingly successful debut, CFM has continued to participate in the Statewide Star Party annually. This year the party will be held at Carolina Beach State Park on Friday, April 21. The theme is “Star Light, Star Bright.” They plan on closely examining the physics of stars.
McDermott enjoys the event for the curiosity it brings out in people of all ages. “For me it doesn’t get much better than helping students understand they are scientists,” McDermott says. “If you’re curious about the natural world around you, and if you’re interested in why things happen and how they happen, you’re already thinking like a scientist. To give people opportunities to explore science in a fun, hands-on way is why I’m here.”
A graduate of UNCW in environmental science, McDermott’s love for space started as a summer camp director of the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill. Since joining CFM 10 years ago, McDermott has specialized in teaching and creating programs about science and history.
Star Party has remained a popular event for the museum. McDermott is proud to say it is consistently the largest star party in the state. For 2017 the party offers new events and old favorites. A recent addition incorporates two planetarium shows. In the past, CFM only had the means to offer one, which didn’t give every visitor a chance to see the show. Starting last year, however, they partnered with UNCW’s CESTEM (Center for Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), who loans their digital planetarium to the party. Now, they run two different simultaneous shows. While this year’s shows have not been confirmed yet, there are a number of options.
Last year, they played “Solar Quest,” an animated short video that explores how the sun’s energy affects Earth, and a live presentation of the springtime night sky. This year they are considering including “Losing the Dark,” a full-dome digital video about light pollution.
The event also features an “out of this world” technology center, where volunteer Bill Culpepper will show visitors how to use multiple space-related mobile apps, such as Planet Finder, an astronomy compass that aids in locating visible planets; Luna Solaria, which provides data on the sun and moon; and Stellaria, which provides accurate night-sky maps.
Brian Davis, a professor of physics and physical oceanography professor at UNCW, will also provide tours of the night sky. He will use a green laser to point out stars.
In a new event, Tom Osborne, another museum educator, will teach about satellites. He’ll use apps and technology to show people how to track satellites and sign up to hear about International Space Station flyovers. He will have a website running that will track the satellites in the night sky for people to locate.
To tie in the theme, there will be other hands-on stations dedicated to stars. One will investigate why stars twinkle in the night sky, a phenomenon known as “stellar scintillation.” On a piece of black construction paper, visitors can draw their own twinkling stars. Another station explores why stars appear to have points, and visitors can create a pointed star out of folded paper.
If visitors and families want to sit, relax and enjoy stories, the New Hanover County Public Library will host Stellar Story Corner. On the back patio of the visitor’s center, Mary Kleinfeldt will read stories under the starlight. Seating and blankets will be provided, but visitors can free to their own blankets and refreshments.
Additional partners include Wilmington Trolley Company, who will shuttle people to and from parking, and Golf Cars of Coastal Carolina, who will provide transportation for people with limited mobility. UNCW’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) have joined to volunteer at stations and help run the event.
In organizing the star party, McDermott wants to bring together community organizations who are passionate about science. He also wants to help families and friends bond over the shared experience of discovery.
“Every time I look around at these events, I see parents sitting on the ground at eye level with their kids and doing things together,” McDermott says. “Everywhere you look, there are families exploring things together. I just love it.”