The Cavalier Daily
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Tap into a new universe on O-Hill

A five-minute drive from the intersection of McCormick and Alderman Roads, up a dark, winding path on the appropriately named Observatory Hill, will lead students to a high-tech, breathtaking stargazing facility.

The crowd makeup varies on public nights, ranging from astronomy enthusiasts who constitute a small group of regulars, to University students, couples on dates and adults with children in tow. Astronomy Prof. John Hawley said many observers are first timers.

"Tonight was [our] date night, so we thought of trying something different and interesting," said married couple Michelle and Greg Truslow of Ruckersville, Va. "We heard about the public nights from a friend who had been once before."

The public night program features telescopic observing, a slide show, a small museum and special exhibits allowing patrons to explore astronomy in different ways. The McCormick Road facilities house a large, 26-inch-diameter indoor telescope in a spacious dome room adjacent to the main building. In addition, there are two outdoor telescopes with six-inch and 10-inch lenses. They are located on the outside lawn in a roofless brick compound with a raised wooden viewing platform known as the "doghouse."

"The giant telescope is a marvel of human design. It amazes me how people can reach so far out into the cosmos," first-year College student June Gullaba said.

Every public night the large telescope is focused on one galactic entity, determined by planetary and weather conditions such as the position and brightness of the moon. The last public night featured M-15, a globular structure of very old stars formed in the galaxy's infancy. There is also a small, museum-esque collection room located in the center of the main building.

Old pictures, interspersed between illuminated images of such wonders as Halley's comet, the Crab Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy and the most massive known star, 30 Doradus, cover the walls.

Lining the walls, the lighted rectangular display cases showcase various objects: small shiny fist-sized meteorites that pre-date the Declaration of Independence, a pair of archaic binoculars, yellowed research notebooks with photos and a book on practical astronomy, penned in 1797. The collections room faces the long rectangular slide show room, complete with rows of tightly packed chairs facing a white viewing screen.

The 20-minute slide show provides a brief history of not only astronomy as a field, but also the founding and evolution of the McCormick Road Observatory. However, though the slide show provides an abundance of factual information, it is a bit technical and wordy in some parts.

The slide show also demonstrates in detail the use and application of these telescopic facilities for modern day research purposes, and at the end of the showing is a brief question and answer period hosted by an astronomy professor.

"This is the second year I've taken residents up to the open observatory nights. It's been quite successful each time," said Resident Assistant Mark Lutterbie, a fourth-year College student. "They have a lot of fun and usually come away knowing a thing or two about astronomy."

No prior knowledge of astronomy is needed to enjoy the facilities; professors are readily available to answer any questions.

"I feel that the public night program at McCormick Observatory provides a unique opportunity for research scientists to inform the public about their work," Asst. Prof. of Educational Outreach Ed Murphy said. "The key to bringing these two groups together is the observatory and the public night program."

A few long-term or permanent exhibits are being planned for the McCormick Road Observatory, Murphy said.

"We would also like to create an exhibition on the history of astronomical research at the University of Virginia, possibly including scientific instruments that would have been used during Jefferson's time," he said.

These public nights will continue throughout the year on the odd Fridays of every month from 9 to 11 p.m. and are free for University students. So grab some friends, a flashlight and jacket, and head on over to McCormick Road Observatory ¥ the only place on Grounds where University students can connect with the origins of the known universe twice a month.

Scientists predict that 7.8 billion years from now, the sun will be 5,000 times brighter, heating the Earth to 1,300 degrees Celsius and melting the seven continents. But until then, University students can explore the solar system through the McCormick Road Observatory.

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