of astronomy department
converge at U.Va. observatories on "public" nights
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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,
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.
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."
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.