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Sky-watchers converge at U.Va. observatories on "public" nights
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Courtesy of astronomy department

Sky-watchers converge at U.Va. observatories on "public" nights

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

The massive red spot on Jupiter's surface and the seemingly tiny moons surrounding the planet are just a few beauties of the night sky visitors can glimpse through the telescopes during public nights at the University's Leander McCormick and Fan Mountain observatories.

McCormick, located on Observatory Hill, has a manually operated telescope, with a 26-inch lens, that has been in continuous use since 1883. Fan Mountain, built in 1969 and located 13 miles south of Charlottesville, has two telescopes, a 30-inch and a 40-inch.

"A dark, starry night is indescribably beautiful. People enjoy it and respond to it," said Philip Ianna, the astronomy professor who manages the public events. "It's one of those precious things in nature that we're losing -- it's a connection we can make with the rest of the universe."

The McCormick Observatory has been opening its doors to the community on the first and third Friday of each month since the 1930s. Fan Mountain began hosting public nights in 1970.

"It's always a big crowd at Fan," Ianna said. When some nights attracted 600 people, the astronomy department decided to limit the tickets given out to 450, he said. "But McCormick is also drawing crowds" of close to 300 some nights.

The telescopes at both observatories are generally focused on the moon, a planet or a cluster of stars. At Fan Mountain, visitors used to wait in long lines to look through the telescopes, but now they are given a group number and can watch an outdoor slide show narrated by astronomy graduate students until their number is called, he said.

In addition to the large telescopes, visitors at Fan Mountain can gaze through smaller ones brought by local amateur astronomers. On Oct. 15, about a dozen of these telescopes were focused on such sights as Saturn, Jupiter, the moon, the Pleiades and a "dumb-bell nebula," a gas cloud formed by a dying star, nicknamed for its shape.

The 30-inch telescope at Fan is primarily used for teaching, while the 40-inch is employed for research. "It is used to do positional astronomy, measuring the motions and distances of the stars," Ianna said. "We're helping complete the census of nearby stars -- we probably only know half" of them.

"That work is intended to contribute to the search for nearby planets. The space missions are going to look for planets around nearby stars," he said. "Ultimately, we're looking for an Earth-sized planet."

The McCormick Observatory is used only for teaching, because light pollution from Charlottesville limits visibility.

"I've been here 30 years, and it's clearly much less dark both at McCormick and at Fan," said Ianna, who founded the Virginia chapter of the international Dark Sky Association.

Fan Mountain's relative darkness came under threat twice in 1995. A state commission looking for prison sites wanted to build one on the mountain, and a new youth league baseball park located two miles away was going to have floodlights. In both cases, the University supported Ianna's pleas for darkness: the prison wasn't built and the baseball park only has lights in its rest rooms, he said.

"I pushed [Albemarle] County into creating a lighting ordinance," which went into effect in August 1998, Ianna said. He encourages people to put covers on outdoor security lights that focus the light on the ground.

"Part of the reason I'm fighting for dark skies is because [they've] had such an impact on me," he said. "I remember when I was a Boy Scout [living in Philadelphia] and took my first camping trip in upstate Pennsylvania. I was amazed by how beautiful the night sky was. It's a sad thing if children in the future don't get to see that."

To request free tickets for Fan Mountain public nights (required for admission), send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Fan Mountain Public Night, P.O. Box 3818, Charlottesville, VA 22903. No advance reservations are needed for McCormick.



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