The Stars at Night are Big and Bright... How large is the Big South Fork and what are it’s boundaries? Most of us would answer by, defining the “ground level” boundaries of the park as you would see them on a map.
Yet the boundaries can also be measured vertically and in that direction we have yet to define an upper limit to Big South Fork. Panoramic views from the parks overlooks can extend for miles on a clear day, but on a clear night we can see as far as 2 million light years away to the Andromeda galaxy! (Converted to miles, that’s 13.2 x 10 to the 17th power or 13,200,000,000,000,000,000 miles.) At night we can look back in time as well as across space. When we see the reddish star Antares in the constellation of Scorpio (visible before dawn in winter and spring), we’re looking at light that took 500 years to reach us.
Several factors make Big South Fork an excellent place for night sky-watching. Foremost is the absence of light pollution, so prevalent near developed areas, which makes this area unique among most viewing areas. For city-dwellers accustomed to seeing only a handful of stars, Big South Fork’s star-laden skies can be dazzling and a little intimidating. On the clearest nights, around 2,000 stars are visible to the naked eye. Add a few planets and some “shooting stars”, or meteorites, and you’ve got a nocturnal display that’s well worth staying up a little later! You don’t need a telescope to observe the night sky, although some people do like to use binoculars. As it becomes increasingly difficult to find places free of air pollution and light interference, places with dark, clear night skies become that much more valuable.
The noted Englishman Havelock Ellis said, “The moon and stars would have disappeared long ago had they been within the reach of human hands.” Though they still remain far from our reach, we are indeed losing sight of the stars through the work of our own hands.
National Park Service
The University of Tennessee works in cooperation with Big South Fork in presenting astronomy programs throughout the year. Paul Lewis, Astronomy Outreach and Education Director at the University of Tennessee, maintains a website which lists astronomy viewing, events, images and has teacher's information available.