By Sue Wasserman
If Jon Wilmesherr has his druthers, more Western North Carolina residents and visitors will be taking a walk on the dark side. Don’t worry. His plot isn’t sinister, just celestial. The director of Academic Support Services and Learning Resources Center for Mayland Community College (MCC) is eager to show off the recently opened Bare Dark Sky Observatory located at the college’s Earth to Sky Park in Burnsville. The observatory is named for two key donors: Warren and Larissa Bare.
The basics are stellar enough. The observatory sits at an elevation of just over 2,700 feet and offers a 360-degree view. What elevates the experience to “out of this world” status is the site’s certification as a Certified Star Park from the International Dark-Sky Association, meaning it’s about as pitch dark as possible to ensure an optimum star-gazing opportunity. This is the first such certification to be given in the southeastern US—and one of only 15 in the world.
While the dark sky provides a perfect backdrop, the sky’s the limit thanks to a custom-built f/3.6 StarStructure Newtonian telescope with a 34-inch mirror, the largest such telescope in the Southeast dedicated for public use. It has been nicknamed the “Sam” for long-time MCC funder Sam Phillips, whose Samuel L. Phillips Family Foundation provided funding.
“It took us a long time to get the observatory just right,” says MCC president John Boyd. “We’ve already fielded international calls and visits from people who are excited to see what we’ve been able to accomplish.” With the observatory launched, the college is now focused on funding a planetarium that will be constructed in the park. The goal is to integrate education and tourism.
“We look forward to being able to give our students, residents and visitors access to a facility that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the Southeast,” Boyd adds. “I have no doubt this observatory is going to become a great source of pride for the region.”
MCC Foundation executive director Margaret Earley- Thiele sparkles when talking about her most recent star-studded observatory visit. “Not only could we see Jupiter, we could see its four moons and the colors of the gas clouds surrounding it. When we looked at the moon, we could see individual craters. I felt like we were sitting in a space ship looking out. It was pretty spectacular.”
Visits to the observatory are by reservation only. The facility is also available for evening rentals. MCC provides onsite transportation. For more information, visit mayland.edu/observatory or call 828-766-1233.