When friends who don’t live here ask me about the nightlife in Highland County, they are often surprised when I answer that we have an absolutely stellar nightlife here.
Due to our geographical isolation, low population, and high elevation, we have one of the finest views of the night sky in the eastern United States. These factors result in low levels of light pollution and low humidity, which make it easier to see celestial objects. Even in the suburbs of beautiful, downtown Monterey, the backyard boasts some excellent views of the stars, planets, and nebula. What you will see depends on the time of year and viewing conditions.
The Main Event: Our Moon
So, what can you experience in the night sky with little or no equipment in Highland County? First, and always easiest, is the moon. While every phase is interesting, to see a full or nearly full moon rise over the mountain through the bare trees of winter is a five-minute drama beyond compare. Our clear, mountain air lends a crispness to the tableau that few locations can match. Add a pair of binoculars or small telescope, and the mountains, craters, and seas on the moon pop out in clarity and depth.
When the moon is shining brightly, it is the only game in town – its brilliance significantly dims all other sights. But, on those nights when the moon is a mere sliver, or rises in the wee, small hours, or is in its new, or dark phase, that’s when the stars really begin to shine. With no competing illumination from the moon or over-lighted cities and shopping centers, the number of stars you can see is awe-inspiring – several thousand, as compared to a few dozen in most cities.
Often, when we have friends arrive for a visit after dark, we hear their car pull in the driveway, then the doors open, then… nothing. After a few minutes, we go out to see what has happened to our guests. Invariably, they are standing by their car, looking up, mouths agape in wonder.
Constellational Characters of the Night Sky
It’s not hard to get to know the constellations and the stars that make them up. Mobile apps point you exactly where to look and outline exactly what you’re seeing. Once seen, they are yours forever.
When Orion begins to rise in the winter, it’s like an old friend returning. Stargazing is often easier in winter because there is less humidity in the atmosphere to block the view, and it gets darker earlier. It is delightful to spot Orion with his faithful dogs, chasing Taurus the Bull who threatens the seven sisters, the Pleiades, across the southern sky. Until I lived here, I had never been able to see Orion’s drawn bow. One of the ‘stars’ in the sword hanging below his belt is really a nebula. You can see this illuminated cloud of gas easily with binoculars or a small telescope.
Look toward the north and find the Big Dipper. Then, following the pointer stars in the end of the dipper’s bowl, you can find Polaris, the North Star. On especially dark and still nights, you can even see Andromeda, the galaxy nearest our own Milky Way galaxy, with your naked eyes.
The Milky Way, a great river of stars which is our own galaxy seen edge on, is best visible in the summer sky. Scanning the Milky Way with binoculars reveals an unimaginable number of stars, like a bucketful of diamonds thrown onto black velvet.
Wandering among the stars and constellations are the visible planets. They are not all visible all of the time, but make appearances throughout the year.
- Venus, called the Evening Star when it is visible in the west just after sunset, and the Morning Star when it is visible in the east just before sunrise, are impossible to miss. When viewed through a telescope, it shows phases like our moon.
- Mars has a distinctly red color and appears as a dot even in a small telescope.
- Jupiter is often the brightest object in the night sky. With a telescope you can see Jupiter’s four largest moons, all in a line, from our perspective.
- Finally, Saturn. While it takes a telescope to see the famed rings, it is still bright and beautiful when seen without aid.
Every once in a while, a rarer visitor will make an unexpected appearance. Such was the case in July 2020, when Comet NEOWISE became visible to the naked eye in our dark Highland skies. Seeing that graceful, rare arc along with flashing lightning bugs was wondrous indeed.
Join Us at our Star Party
And so, the night sky contains constant, fixed points by which we measure ages, but it is also an ever-changing panorama of wonder and beauty. While we are blessed to be able to see it clearly here in Highland, it is also a fragile resource. Every new lighted storefront, all-night security lights, and floodlit edifice reduces our ability to see and appreciate what 85% of the world population never even gets to glimpse at all.
The Charlottesville Astronomical Society hosts a “Star Party” in Highland during the new moon in September and October every year, weather permitting. Members bring their telescopes, some so big they have to be hauled in by trailer, to share close-up views of star clusters, nebulae, and planets. There is no charge, and all are welcome. More information will be available closer to the events. In the meantime, check out the Highland County Star Gazers Facebook group or follow the Highland County Chamber of Commerce on Facebook to stay up-to-date on event announcements.
So, enjoy Highland County’s night sky, and protect it. It’s free. Just go out, and look up.