Just off a winding section of NC Highway 215 in rural Transylvania County is Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute where stargazers can tour a former NASA satellite tracking station and use high-powered radio telescopes to learn more about the heavens.
The 200-acre campus was developed in 1962 by NASA as the Rosman Research Station for use as the government’s primary east coast facility to track satellites and manned space missions because the adjacent mountain ranges effectively blocked out possible radio interference.
The Department of Defense took control of the facility in 1981 and used it for satellite data collection until 1995 when operations were consolidated elsewhere and 19 of the 23 high-tech antennae were removed.
The property was maintained by the U.S. Forest Service until 1998 when the Rosman Research Station became the not-for-profit PARI foundation, which provides learning opportunities through the use of two 85-foot radio telescopes, a 40-foot radio telescope, one 15-foot remotely-operated radio telescope as well as other optical telescopes, atmospheric monitoring stations and environmental monitoring instruments.
“PARI is a place that provides science, technology, engineering and math research and education opportunities to people of all ages,” explains Dr. David Clavier, PARI’s vice president of administration and development. “Our president Don Cline likes to say that we provide research and educational opportunities for everyone from ‘K to Gray.'”
One recent way PARI has offered those opportunities is through their popular weekend Star Parties where visitors live on the property and share their interest in astronomy while receiving hands-on training with PARI’s updated equipment.
“People who come to our Star Parties may never have owned a telescope or even used one before, but that’s where the fun comes in because here they can take a telescope outside, try it out and ask questions,” says PARI Education Director Christi Whitworth. “They get a chance to meet other amateur astronomers, talk with astronomy professionals about the instruments, data and science that they are doing. They may even get to talk about some of the beautiful images that people produce from astral photography. It’s a melding of art and science.”
Highlights for the upcoming December Star Party at PARI include a presentation on the legacy of the Space Shuttle program, a planetarium program on Mayan skies and training on the Smiley radio telescope, which can be controlled over the Internet.
“PARI is as much a museum as an observatory and we got tours of just about everything over the time we were there,” says 44-year-old Richard Wright of Lake Mary, Florida, who brought 16-year old son Stephen along to a previous Star Party. “At least three times, he said, ‘That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!’ I’d most definitely recommend the Star Party to anyone even with a casual interest in astronomy.”
Clavier says the event offers something that school groups or other regular visitors to the property cannot experience during usual business hours.
“Since the best optical observations are done at night when we are typically not open, this is the time for our visitors to take the best advantage of what we have to offer,” he says. “Star Parties are just one of the many exciting programs we have initiated to make our facilities accessible to the general public. Enthusiasts can share new ideas, research and their interests in astronomy, which is exactly our mission.”
PARI by the numbers:
Astronomical Photographic Data Archive (APDA) — PARI currently houses a permanent collection of more than 100,000 astronomical photographic glass plates and film, and has been chosen by the International Astronomical Union as the main North American repository for these historical artifacts. The Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the U.S. Naval Observatory and numerous universities are working with PARI to digitize and store these records.
Historical Instruments — PARI was one of the first sites developed by NASA to track satellites and communicate with the early astronaut pioneers. The 85-foot radio telescope was the first of its type to be constructed and the 400-ton instrument is still used for training and research.
PARI Library — Visitors can view original astronomy journals and records going back to the mid-1800s, and the PARI library contains many rare astronomy, mathematics, engineering and other science books.
StarLab Planetarium — Some 55,000 people have attended planetarium shows conducted in the 7,500 square foot StarLab building.