NASA solar ambassador wows audience with night skies presentation

‘The real Skyline Drive is the Milky Way — it’s not the asphalt’


It was all stars at the Castleton Festival last Saturday night, when the Rappahannock League of Environmental Protection hosted a free night of astronomical fun focused on preserving Rappahannock’s beautiful — and rare — dark skies.

RLEP President Rick Kohler kicked off the educational evening — featuring a lecture by NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern — by reiterating the organization’s commitment to preventing light pollution.

RLEP President Rick Kohler welcomes a large audience to a Castleton lecture by NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern, who is seen below answering questions about Rappahannock’s unique dark skies. Photos by Monica Marciano

Kohler noted that Rappahannock County is one of the few places left on the eastern seaboard where people can still view the Milky Way and other stars. Kohler and fellow RLEP members are working to ensure that Rappahannock can maintain the dazzling night skies, and perhaps even draw tourists to the area to see the spectacular overhead views.

When it came his turn to speak, Redfern wowed the audience with his presentation, “The Universe and You.”

The NASA ambassador began by projecting a few images he had taken of the Milky Way in Shenandoah National Park, where he gives similar presentations on the stars and space at least three times a month. Redfern echoed Kohler’s calls to conserve these beautiful views, noting that 80 percent of the U.S. population cannot see the Milky Way from their homes.

Redfern marveled at Shenandoah National Park’s preservation of these disappearing dark skies, stating, “As I’m always fond of saying to my audiences, the real Skyline Drive is the Milky Way — it’s not the asphalt.”

He went on to relate many other wonders of space to the 280 in attendance, touching on Earth’s place in the Solar System, the formation of stars, black holes and the Event Horizon Telescope, plus the innumerable number of planets in our universe.

“We live in a time where we know of 4,000 planets beyond our own solar system. We’re finding out that exoplanets are as common as grains of sand on an ocean beach,” he said.

In addition, Redfern discussed the movement and evolution of galaxies and the Big Bang. Redfern noted that astronomers have identified at least 2 trillion galaxies, and that the Big Bang formed our own galaxy through transforming “nothing into something.”

Redfern also explained the concept of dark matter, noting, “We can detect dark matter in our universe through its effects on ordinary matter … We have found out that dark matter is in between galactic clusters.”

While it was too cloudy outside for Redfern to lead a celestial laser tour of the stars and constellations, the audience enthusiastically welcomed the ambassador’s offer to give an additional presentation, featuring images of constellations that Redfern had taken in Shenandoah National Park and other locations surrounding the county.

All in all, RLEP members and guests left the event boasting of a better knowledge of space, our solar system, and the important mission of preserving dark skies.

“May you enjoy our rare and unique Rappahannock View of the stars even more with this new knowledge of the incredible immensity and staggering breadth of the stars and galaxies of our universe,” Kohler said in closing the well-attended event.

Since 1970, RLEP has been instrumental in protecting Rappahannock County’s fragile environment, preventing everything from excess power lines from destroying the beauty of the natural landscape to holding educational seminars on forestry; creating meadows to educating about Lymes disease and dark skies.

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