UNCA, Astronomy Club of Asheville announce observatory project


UNCA and the Astronomy Club of Asheville today announced a joint project to build a small laboratory on the north side of campus that will significantly expand student opportunities for studying optical astronomy.

UNCA’s Physics Department has a well-established core of astronomy classes but lacks a laboratory/observatory for coursework and undergraduate research. The new facility will serve as a modern lab for the 300 students who study introductory astronomy each year and as a research facility for students pursuing advanced study and undergraduate research projects in astronomy, astrophysics and experimental physics. The lab will also be used for special sessions for area K-12 schools and the N.C. Center for Creative Retirement, as well as by the Astronomy Club of Asheville. 

The Astronomy Club of Asheville is funding the full cost of building the facility, which is being designed by Padgett & Freeman Architects of Asheville.

“We are grateful for the generosity and vision of the Astronomy Club of Asheville and are delighted to be working with them to bring a high-quality astronomical observation and research facility to the region. This joint effort will benefit scientists of all ages and abilities and promote and expand STEM education on our campus and in our community,” said UNCA Chancellor Anne Ponder. 

Bernard Arghiere, Astronomy Club of Asheville president, said, “This observatory will bring our solar system and the universe a whole lot closer to the residents of Asheville, Buncombe County and our region. There are many wonderful astronomical images available today, but nothing takes the place of observing a planet or other celestial objects directly in the telescope eyepiece.”

The 1,300-square-foot, single-story building will have a low-pitched roof that slides back for full-sky astronomical viewing and will accommodate up to 25 students and staff. The lab will permanently house two 14-inch optical telescopes; a paved terrace outside the building will provide space for additional portable telescopes.

The Astronomy Club of Asheville will provide one of the two 14-inch telescopes; the university already owns the second. One of the two telescopes will be upfitted for remote viewing and high-quality photography.

Said Brian Dennison, UNCA’s Glaxo Wellcome Professor and professor of Physics, “The optical astronomy lab will give students hands-on experience with telescopes and related state-of-the-art instrumentation. This will complement our ongoing work in radio astronomy that we carry out in partnership with the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute near Brevard.”

“We are excited about the opportunities to partner with K-12 educators and students in our region.  Astronomy is one of the sciences that can intrigue students of any age,” added Judy Beck, the UNCA physics professor who will be working with area schools.

The new lab will be located at the end of Nut Hill Road (referred to by some as Chestnut Ridge Road), on a very small portion (.07 acre) of the 65-acre property owned by the university that sits north of Reuter Center and the Sherrill Center, above Lookout Road. Nut Hill Road is a gated and paved access road built by the university a number of years ago. 

The site was selected for its excellent sky views and because it is subject to minimal vibration and light pollution, which are both key to optimal astronomical study. The lab will sit well below the ridgeline on the lower part of the property facing the campus. The lab’s small footprint will allow it to easily blend into the site.

The presence of the lab is not expected to increase traffic on Lookout Road. Nut Hill Road, which intersects with Lookout Road, will remain gated. Classes and groups using the lab will be transported by campus shuttle. Parking at the lab will be limited to facility staff and users requiring handicap access.

The existing hiking trails on the 65-acre property will not be affected by the project and will remain intact. 

Construction is expected to begin this summer and the lab is projected to be in use during the coming academic year. Some tree trimming and tree removal will be required for construction and optimal astronomical lines of sight. Hardwoods removed will be used in future university projects.  New landscaping appropriate to the lab will be added over time.

To see architectural renderings of the new lab, a map showing the lab’s campus location, and more information about the project, click here.


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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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