By Tim Gardner
The High Country’s Mayland Community College can boast to having one of the nation’s most unique observatories that houses one of the true science wonders of the world in the StarStructure Newtonian telescope.
Named for Warren and Larissa Bare, the observatory is located at the Mayland Earth to Sky Park (formally the EnergyXchange) in Yancey County, near the Mitchell County line. Its physical address is 66 Energy Exchange Drive, Burnsville, NC. The observatory allows community members an opportunity to experience the marvels of the universe, while providing Astronomy students with hands-on learning.
Sitting at an elevation of 2,736 feet and offering a 360-degree view, the observatory is an International Dark Sky Association certified site.
The International Dark Sky Association, a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization based in Tucson, Arizona, advocates for the protection of the nighttime environment and dark night skies by educating policymakers and the public on the subject of night sky conservation and by promoting environmentally responsible outdoor lighting.
IDA established the International Dark Sky Places conservation program in 2001 to recognize excellent stewardship of the night sky. Designations are based on stringent outdoor lighting standards and innovative community outreach. More details about the International Dark Sky Places Program can be obtained online at: darksky.org/night-sky-conservation/dark-sky-places.
Called the “Sam Scope” in memory of long-time MCC benefactor Samuel Phillips, the famous telescope features a f/3.6 telescope with a 34- inch (0.86 meter) mirror. It is the largest telescope in the Southeastern United States in dark skies dedicated for classroom and public use activities.
The Samuel L. Phillips Family Foundation, a local nonprofit organization, provided funding for fabrication of the telescope. The observatory also has a 14-inch telescope donated by community member Glover Kerlin. This scope allows for night sky photography and viewing of planets and stars.
Visitors to the Mayland Observatory will enjoy an evening stargazing as they’ve never seen. They will have the opportunity to view the moon, planets and stars through the Sam Scope, as well as the observatory’s smaller planetary telescope.
The Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina stood as silent witnesses to the uninterrupted, nightly rain of starlight for nearly a half-billion years, but artificial light now threatens this nightly show. In honor of notable local efforts to preserve the natural nighttime landscape of western North Carolina, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) designated the Mayland Earth to Sky Park and Observatory as the first IDA-certified Star Park in the southeastern United States.
The Blue Ridge Astronomy Group local amateur astronomy society, was instrumental in supporting MCC’s application to the Dark Sky Places Program.
The MCC Bare Dark Sky Observatory was one of the first IDA certified sites in the southeast US to operate under the auspices of an institution of higher learning and to include outdoor lighting that are fully- shielded LED fixtures. Jon Wilmesherr, MCC’s Director of Learning Resources Center and Distance Education, and who led the effort to secure the IDA award, is optimistic that the Park will serve as a model for lighting conservation and highlighting the urgent need for the preservation of the natural night sky.
Wilmesherr retrofitted all the existing outdoor lighting at the park with new state-of-the-art Cree LED light bulbs, each using only 6 watts of electricity. The lights fit all the optimum specifications for brightness, color temperature, and low wattage. Cree is a North Carolina company with headquarters in Durham.
For additional information about the Mayland Earth to Sky Park designation can be obtained online at: www.mayland.edu/about-mayland/earth-to-sky-park
To look through the Sam Scope, visitors will have to walk the inclined path to reach the observatory building and then climb the safety ladder to look into the telescope eye piece. Seating is available inside the facility
With the assistance of the Observatory Manager, up to 20 people will spend two hours viewing and learning about the dark skies. And visitors are also welcome to bring their own telescope and set up on concrete grounds or in the observatory’s lower parking lot. Shuttles to and from the parking lot will be provided.
Adult tickets to the observatory are $10 per person and $5 for ages 12 and younger. Viewings are scheduled for two-hour blocks depending on sunset times. Group rentals are scheduled via phone. These rentals are for groups with a maximum of 20 people for up to a four-hour block. This is ideal for civic groups, astronomy clubs and other large groups. To make a group reservation and for group pricing call: (828) 766-1214.
The observatory is closed during inclement weather (rain, snow, clouds, etc.), but will offer a rain date within the next two nights of the originally scheduled viewing night and will provide notification via email of any inclement weather, rain dates, or cancelations 36 hours in advance. In the event of a cancelation, visitors will receive a full refund.
Visitors will be at their own risk and will hold Mayland Community College and the MCC Foundation harmless in the event of an incident.
For the latest observatory information, updates and weather cancelations call the Bare Dark Sky Observatory phone line at: (828) 766-1214.
Any additional details about the observatory and its telescopes can be found online (mayland.edu/observatory).
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