Several decades ago in the days of spy secrets, espionage, and space wars, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had a little known and well-hidden facility right in our own backyard, an undisclosed satellite-tracking center sitting on 200 acres. Opened on October 26, 1963, this top-secret campus located deep within North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, with its bunkers, hidden tunnels, and cutting-edge tracking technology, was critical to national security. It was at this time that the race for space was full-on with the Soviets and each side battled for greater knowledge of space exploration and technology by watching and listening to the other’s satellites.
Fast-forward fifty-five years, and what once was a covert spy center is now a public education science facility called the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute or simply known as PARI. Situated near the town of Rosman, NC between Lake Toxaway and Brevard, PARI still largely remains a secret today. Founded by Don and Jo Cline in 1998 as a non-profit astronomical educational foundation, PARI serves to inspire young people, hopeful scientists, astronomers and those who just want to learn more. An entertaining outing for the whole family, PARI surprisingly only sees a little over 6,000 paying visitors annually, as people are just slowly discovering this magnificent destination.
“PARI was founded with the vision of providing science discovery and learning experiences to people of all ages, with a special focus on getting young people interested in science with fun, hands-on activities,” said Don Cline. “Today, PARI is a well-equipped science center bristling with instruments and expertise to help maximize an experience that people will remember for a lifetime.”
Stargazing is at its highest level here at PARI as they are well equipped with the latest technology for viewing and recording the skies, including two radio telescopes of 26-meters (85 ft.), one at 12-meters (40 ft.), and one at 4.6-meters (15 ft.). With no light pollution to impede the view due to their remote surroundings, PARI’s optical telescopes can see deep into space, providing a unique opportunity to identify new stars, galaxies, comets, and things not yet named. With more than two trillion galaxies and one to four billion stars in each galaxy, there is a lot to see and learn at PARI.
Their goal is to bring greater knowledge of the skies to a wider audience including many young people. Partnered with Duke University for their summer Talent Identification Program (TIP) as well as many county scholastic programs for all ages and programs for underprivileged children, PARI has a personal mission to get kids of all ages involved in science by making it fun. Having hosted approximately 100,000 students over the course of fifteen years, PARI is proud to have inspired several students who were once new to space science to go on and serve as astrophysicists, astronomers, and scientists.
Last summer during the total eclipse, PARI hosted NASA, along with 250 amateur astronomers and eighty astronomers from Italy that wanted to use the facility to conduct research and record the skies before, during and after the eclipse. According to a PARI spokesperson, “This was the first time in history that an eclipse has passed over an array of sophisticated telescopes like [ours], giving us the opportunity to conduct scientific studies that have never before been possible. Another first for this site.”
In addition to their state-of-the-art telescopes, PARI owns and displays an impressive collection of rare meteorites from around the world in their museum. One meteorite dates back to 1492 found in Alsace, France. Also on display are several fossils, gemstones, and petrified wood specimens. In another area of the museum is a fascinating display of NASA Space Shuttle artifacts and items used and/or collected from outer space.
Aside from PARI’s own archival data collected since their infancy, they also house the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive (APDA) with over 400,000 plates representing 120 years of history in astronomical data. Next to Harvard, they are one of the largest collectors in the U.S. Essentially PARI has a library of over 220,000 photographs of the sky that show how it has changed or evolved over the years.
PARI is still growing its 30 building campus and has many exciting capital projects on the books like the Fluorescent Mineral Exhibit due to open May 2018. Colors from these minerals when exposed to different types of ultraviolet light produce a captivating array of colors, sometimes from the same rock. The largest specimen displayed weighs 2,000 pounds. This glowing tunnel of fluorescence will be a spectacular site to see.
When you visit PARI, make a day out of it. Explore the miles of nature trails, eat at their cafe or enjoy a picnic either at Jo’s Cove or atop their observation deck offering an incredible 360-degree long-range view.
PARI is open Monday through Friday (9 am to 4 pm), Saturdays (9:30 to late) and Sundays (9:30 to 6 pm). Entrance fees are $10 with senior and student discounts. Children under the age of 5, military and first responders receive free admittance. For an extra fee, private tours can be arranged in advance for small to large groups. For $20 a person, Evenings at PARI, on the second Friday of each month, offer amazing entertainment to view the nighttime sky with astronomer docents. To donate to PARI or for more information on PARI’s mission, guided tour hours, educational programs, and to see a calendar of events and activities, visit their website at http://www.pari.edu/.