Friday, June 30, 2023 / by Amy Brown
Stargazing in Asheville
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars and see yourself running with them.” - Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor
For what use is a mountain, if only so that you can reach up and touch the sky. Nothing makes one feel more alive and yet more alone than viewing the vast universe of our galaxy from one of the many opportunities here in Asheville. We have four observatories here whether you are viewing for education, research, or pure enjoyment.
The University of North Carolina at Asheville and the Astronomy Club of Asheville regularly host monthly events at the Lookout Observatory on the UNCA campus. The schedule is coordinated to celestial events and allows the public to use the university’s telescopes to take in the beauty of the night sky. Those signed up on the email list receive a notification of the month’s booking window with only a few spots available. Stargazing nights are free yet fill up in a matter of minutes so you have to be by your computer or phone in order to grab that opportunity when it arises.
For a more relaxed, community feel, head up to over 4000’ of elevation to the Grassland Mountain Observatory in Marshall, less than 30 minutes north of downtown. This observatory is owned by the Astronomy Club of Asheville and encourages the community to learn more about the most unexplored aspects of our universe. Astronomers bring their own telescopes and most are welcome to share as long as you follow stargazing etiquette. Preserving one’s night vision is key since this more remote area is a prime spot for seeing obscure nebulae or faraway galaxies so absolutely no car lights or flashlights are permitted. It is much colder up there, even in the summer, and any visitors are encouraged to wear warm clothes.
The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute located in Rosman, NC was formerly owned by NASA. Opening in 1963, PARI was instrumental in the Spacecraft Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STADAN) communicating with satellites and manned spacecraft as they traveled across the Eastern seaboard. PARI’s radio telescopes received the first color photograph of the full planet Earth and the first TV transmission from space in 1967. During the 1980s this facility was used to intercept Russian satellite communications during the Cold War becoming a Department of Defense facility. In 1995, the DOD moved elsewhere taking most of their equipment with the exception of two 26m dish antennas. The site was then taken over by the US Forest Service and abandoned. Today, it is owned by private philanthropists, Don and Jo Cline, and used as an educational center. They host numerous camps, STEM programs, and even have a mobile planetarium. Generously sponsored by major universities such as Duke and corporations like Mercedes-Benz, this facility is dedicated to providing students, educators, businesses, and institutions with state-of-the-art research facilities.
Lastly, Appalachian State University’s Dark Sky Observatory, located 20 miles northeast of Boone, hosts educational opportunities for those students interested in astrophysics. Students can use one of four telescopes specifically designed for CCD imaging and photometry with spectrographic instrumentation. The Observatory does host monthly public viewings, however, these are more formal in nature and manipulation of the telescopes by the public is not permitted. You should also expect that a large majority of your time will be spent waiting so that all participants have a chance for viewing before astronomers move the telescope into a different position.
For a bit more of a relaxed atmosphere, you can head east to Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview where they host late summer stargazing. Telescopes are not provided nor are they available but visitors are encouraged to bring their own. This is mainly a night of community and conversation as they generally have a speaker. For this event you will want to bring a blanket, camp chairs, and binoculars to enjoy an evening hearing from a local astronomer. Events are usually timed for viewing the Perseids Meteor Shower.