Travel

View the heavens at Western N.C. observatory

One of the most unusual attractions in North Carolina is the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, deep within the Pisgah National Forest, near Rosman. Instead of towering pines, PARI visitors will find two towering telescopes with receiving dishes 85 feet in diameter that capture electromagnetic waves from deep space. Each telescope weighs 400 tons. PARI’s 200-acre campus also includes two smaller radio telescopes, eight optical telescopes and 30 buildings.

Distance

PARI is approximately 135 miles from Charlotte, just under a three-hour drive.

To see and do

The site, originally called the Rosman Tracking Station, was established in 1963 to be used by NASA to advance space exploration. PARI was involved in both the Gemini and Apollo projects, and its antenna picked up and passed along the moon message heard around the world: “The Eagle has landed.” From 1981 to 1994, PARI was used by the Department of Defense as a listening post, an important link in our national security system. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the National Forest Service acted as caretaker for the site before it was converted to its current use as a not-for-profit educational center. In that role, PARI’s major objectives are scientific research, education and public outreach.

Visitors can take self-guided tours of the campus 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays, but are especially encouraged to participate in guided tours given Wednesdays at 2 p.m. Showcased on the tour are items that came from space – meteorites – plus items that went into space: patches, pins, postcards, coins, flags and other memorabilia – aboard various space craft. There are mementos from Apollo-Soyuz, the first (1975) international manned space mission. There is also a small section of the leading edge of a shuttle wing on display. It was the rupture of this wing by a small piece of foam that caused the in-flight break-up of the shuttle Columbia shortly after takeoff in 2003, resulting in the loss of all seven crew members.

Notice that the PARI buildings are all painted NASA-blue, a particular shade that has actually been trademarked.

Be sure and see the scale-model “Galaxy Walk.” A 4-inch ball represents the position of the sun; a step or two away is Mercury, followed closely by Venus, then Earth. Mars is a bit further out; Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune follow at greater distances, but still within sight of the buildings; Pluto, however, is over the hill and out of sight. To put things in perspective, the nearest star to our planet is Alpha Centauri, and if that body were represented on PARI’s Galaxy Walk, its marker would be placed in Tucson, Ariz.

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