At Shenandoah National Park, the Earth touches the sky

In his latest column, Greg Redfern riffs on the wonders of Shenandoah National Park and its wonderful weather. (WTOP/Greg Redfern)

WASHINGTON — It’s a place where the smell of campfires dance with the winds moving the trees. It’s a melody you never hear down below. The quiet is piercing in its silence. The stars meet the distant horizon in this magical place.

I am speaking of our very own Shenandoah National Park, a natural oasis 75 miles from downtown D.C. comprising 200,000 acres.

I was in the park on Friday to begin a new activity called “Let’s Talk About Space in the Shenandoah.” It’s an effort to bring universal wonders to park guests through space-related presentations and a sky-watching session in Big Meadow.

My first presentation was called “The Sky Is Falling: Space Rocks and You.” All seats were taken by 9 p.m. Some guests stood 35 minutes as I discussed asteroids, comets and impacts. I finished by showing real meteorites — including specimens from the moon, Mars and Chelyabinsk, Russia — and the big fireball that exploded last year.

The audience enjoyed seeing bits of Mars and the moon, and touching the 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid pieces. The Chelyabinsk specimen is accompanied by a piece of broken greenhouse glass — part of the million square meters of glass destroyed by the Chelyabinsk fireball.

The sky was clear for our group as we met at Big Meadows parking lot. The summer Milky Way — one of the spiral arms of our galaxy — was visible from the south and across the sky to the Northeast. The dust clouds from this spiral arm were clearly visible.

For almost two hours, our group looked at the sky and learned about stars, constellations, and space missions to the planets Saturn and Mars. Both planets were visible; we saw shooting stars and satellites. Way cool.

The sky-watching crowd was made up of families and couples from New Jersey, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. People reveled in the beauty they saw and learned. Three amateur astronomers had their telescopes, so people could see the rings of Saturn alongside a variety of other sky objects.

The kids asked great questions. A father told me his 15 year-old daughter wants to be an astrophysicist. A young girl with her parents explained that when she was 8, she saw a big fireball in the park. Now that she’s 11, she knows of such things and loved to watch the sky.

I met a couple spending their 30th wedding anniversary at the park. One companion took pictures and is supposed to send me copies to share. I wasn’t able to pull out my camera, and it started getting cloudy around midnight when we called it quits.

I hope you visit Shenandoah National Park to see Mother Nature. She’s refreshing and downright cleansing to the soul. The park comes alive on a clear night and the weather there has a certain magic to it.

Join me for “Let’s Talk About Space in the Shenandoah.” There will be seven more presentations. Our next get-together is August 12, the night of the Perseid Meteor Shower.

My presentation will be on our very own “Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater.”

Come up and stay for a few days. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did.

Follow my daily blog and @SkyGuyinVA to keep up with the latest news in astronomy and space exploration. Email me at skyguyinva@gmail.com.

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