Lookout Observatory reopened to the public last Saturday with the first of many public stargazing events planned for the year.
Astronomy Club of Asheville President Dominic Lesnar said the observatory provides students and members of the community with a resource for learning about the night sky.
“It’s really a top quality observatory so you’ll get to see high quality instruments backed by a number of Astronomy Club volunteers and university staff and students,” Lesnar said.
Lookout Observatory, a collaboration between UNC Asheville and Astronomy Club of Asheville, first opened to the public in the fall of 2014, Lesnar stated. The observatory is located on the northern edge of campus, providing a stunning view of downtown Asheville and the surrounding mountains.
“The benefit of Lookout Observatory is that it is really adjacent to downtown so people don’t have to travel a long distance to find some objects to look at,” Lesnar said. “People are able to go to a stargazing event almost in their backyards. They don’t have to travel far to see what’s going on in the sky that month.”
Volunteers, staff and students arrange star gazes based on the phases of the moon. Different phases allow for different amounts of light in the sky, illuminating various celestial objects for viewing.
Visitors can observe star clusters, galaxies and planets including Mars, Jupiter and Uranus. Lesner stated Saturn tends to amaze viewers the most.
“Saturn really does look exactly how you would imagine it to look like, with the rings and everything,” Lesnar said.
For Lesnar and other club members, half of the fun lies in seeing the reactions of first-time viewers.
“People seem genuinely excited about it,” Lesnar said. “They’re thankful that they have a resource like an observatory right here in Asheville and they’re excited that we, as club members and members of the university, are happy to show them the sky. We’re just as excited about it as they are.”
Brian Hart, a physics department administrative assistant who manages Lookout Observatory, said the monthly stargazing events draw more than 200 people, with the most successful event topping out at around 320 attendants. Hart encourages people to sign up for the mailing list, which currently boasts a following of more than 2,000, and to register promptly to secure a space for the viewings.
While he expected the public stargazing events to be popular, Hart said he did not anticipate such an enormous outpouring of interest.
“If we had 50 to 75 people at each stargaze it would be a total success but we regularly get over 200 people to actually show up,” Hart said. “It’s been very successful.”
The observatory owes some of the popularity to the community outreach efforts, including working with local public, private and charter schools, along with various groups within the community.
“We’ve also done work with RAs on campus who have gotten in their halls and got a group together and we arrange star gazes for them,” Hart said. “We try to reach out to the community as much as we can and it’s been quite successful, more successful than anyone ever imagined.”
In addition to public viewings, the observatory provides UNCA students with an opportunity to work together with faculty to perform research and gain understanding of the equipment.
“Because the observatory is so new, a lot of research has been done by students just to determine the limits of what the equipment can do, which is very interesting and will be very useful for students to come,” Hart said.
The students who work with the observatory perform many different jobs during an event including driving the shuttles, running the telescope, narrating the indoor slideshow and interacting with the public. Hart said student involvement keeps the observatory running smoothly.
“We would not be able to do any of this without our students,” Hart said. “They’re definitely a key component of making it all happen,.”
One of those students, 22-year-old Dylan Cromer, started working at Lookout Observatory in the summer of 2014 shortly before construction was complete. Part of his responsibilities as a guide include showing guests through the night sky.
“We try to make sure people know what they’re looking at and if they do ask a question, like ‘how far away is this object?’ or ‘what is this? Is it a star or a galaxy?’ we try and be ready to answer those types of questions,” Cromer said. “Sometimes people don’t know what to ask, so we usually are reciting one or two little cool things about them.”
Cromer said providing details and facts about celestial objects enhances the experience for visitors.
“Each object kind of has its own cool thing and so we just make sure that we let people know what that is so they don’t miss it,” Cromer said.
Cromer, a senior physics and math student, said the observatory provides a way to combine his passions and share his knowledge.
“Sometimes people just ask ‘how does this star even function?’ or ‘what are the objects doing?’” Cromer said. “I like those questions a lot because I’m a physics major and I’m actually studying how these objects work in some courses and that’s where some of my interests are. I love talking about the physics of what’s going on the most.”
For Cromer, one of the most fascinating celestial objects in the sky is one that is sometimes overlooked: the moon.
“I mean you think ‘I’ve seen the moon once, I’ve seen it a million times, but it’s different through a telescope,” Cromer said. “It’s not what people expect when they’re looking at it. It really is the most shocking thing to look at.”
As far as the passionate response from the public, the driving force could simply be curiosity.
“I think people have an idea of what’s out there but they always want to learn more,” Cromer said. “Going to the observatory is a way people can ask questions that they’ve always had but never really had time to answer for themselves.”
Comer said he encourages students and staff to take advantage of what Lookout Observatory offers.
“I think everyone at UNCA should go up there at least once,” Cromer said.
For more information on the next public star gazing event and to sign up for the Lookout Observatory mailing list, visit https://lookoutobservatory.unca.edu/