At dusk tonight, Western North Carolina residents will have the opportunity to see the night sky in an entirely different way as the Bare Dark Sky Observatory at Mayland Community College holds its grand opening.
The observatory, located at Mayland’s Earth to Sky Park near Burnsville, cost over $600,000 to build, says Beth Morris, director of communications at Mayland Community College, and includes a building with a retractable roof and a 34-inch telescope with tracking capabilities.
The site originally housed the EnergyXchange, an art and craft studio fueled by methane gas collected from a landfill. After EnergyXchange closed in 2016, discussions with the Blue Ridge Astronomy Group led to that organization’s involvement in repurposing the facility as an astronomical site, Morris explains.
“It’s been a community effort. This was all privately funded and [was] a very foundation-heavy goal,” Morris says. “Once we started talking with the Blue Ridge Astronomy Group, we all thought this would be a great opportunity.”
The International Dark Sky Association designated the Earth to Sky Park as the first IDA-certified dark sky park in the southeastern United States. Additionally, the “Sam Scope” telescope, named in memory of project donor Samuel Phillips, is the largest telescope dedicated to research and recreational activities in the Southeast.
“In the astronomy world, getting a Dark Sky certification is a very big deal,” Morris says. “Once we got that, we started getting phone calls from all over the world offering to help us and use our facilities.”
Now that the observatory is up and running, the next step is to expand, Morris explains. Mayland Community College hopes to use the Earth to Sky Park to house its micro-propagation lab, greenhouses and future aquaponics and hydroponics facilities. Additionally, Morris says plans are in place to add a planetarium to allow groups daytime access to images of the night sky.
“We hope to make it an educational place and hope to encourage school groups to come and use it, our astronomy classes will use it, and we hope outside groups make reservations to come. We hope to develop more as we get going.”
The grand opening will begin at 4 p.m. and will include outdoor games, educational astronomy videos, food trucks and a tour of the facilities. At 7 p.m. a ceremonial ribbon cutting will occur, and once the sun goes down visitors will be able to look through the telescope and see celestial objects.
Following the grand opening event, the observatory will be open for events and classes this summer, as well as group reservations.
“We hope to make this a destination, to give people another reason to come to Western North Carolina,” Morris said. “We hope people hear about it, make a reservation, see our telescopes and ultimately help prompt economic development in the area. We’re looking forward to what this facility will become.”
The Bare Dark Sky Observatory will host its grand opening on June 1, beginning at 4 p.m. Due to limited parking access, Mayland Community College is offering shuttle rides to the observatory. Guests are advised to wear closed-toed walking shoes and to bring flashlights if they are staying past dusk.