Discover a hidden space center deep in Pisgah National Forest. If you are fascinated with science and the stars, The Learning Center at PARI (formerly called Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute) is a must-see in the Asheville area. This complex was initially developed by NASA in 1962 as the east coast facility to track satellites and monitor manned space flights. Today, it's a non-profit educational and world-class research center known for their massive radio telescopes. Located near Brevard, the 30-building campus dotted with all sizes of telescopes is well-protected from man-made light pollution and radio interference. It attracts both curious tourists and acclaimed scientists from around the globe.
In 2018, find many changes and additions:
- A new name: Learning Center at PARI
- New Hours: Starting May 21, they are open for "general public" tours on weekends, Saturday and Sunday starting at 9:30 AM. Often, they will stay open late on Saturday for sky observing. They close at 6 PM on Sundays. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner. VIP Stargazing events on Saturday nights "Stargazer's Journey.
- New admission: $10 per person ($30 max per family), $8 for seniors and students (elementary through college), and free admission for military, first responders, and children 5 and under. Pre-arranged special tours and events for groups can be scheduled by calling visitor services at (828) 862-5554. Special rates apply.
- A new focus: As they shift more toward experiential education, they are developing an extensive offering of science educational experiences in the form of science day and residential camps for children, college students and families. Camp programs will include multiple science, technology and astronomy-themed workshops for various age groups and families.
- Advanced field study camps enable higher education groups continue their education out of the classroom and in the field as they work with PARI’s extensive world-class research facilities and equipment.
- A restaurant, Smiley's, and two large cabins built for overnight accommodations for campers and individual visitors when there are no camps.
- New primitive tent campsites created around the massive 12-meter radio telescope.
This premiere science camp welcomes all ages to visit and become immersed in the world of science and technology. The campus houses radio and optical telescopes, earth science instruments, the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive, onsite lodging and restaurant. Exhibit galleries display NASA Space Shuttle artifacts and collections of rare meteorites and minerals. The Learning Center at PARI provides STEM educational programs at all levels, from K-12 through post-graduate research.
PARI is one of the few sites in the country selected by NASA to receive artifacts from the Space Shuttle Program. See them in their space exploration galley, including several items that have flown in space.
Drive or hike throughout the 200-acre site and stop at the observation deck for spectacular Blue Ridge Mountain views.
See their impressive collection of meteorites, gems and minerals. Since North Carolina is the only state where large gem-grade emeralds are found, their collection includes a 15.3-carat faceted emerald. The meteorite section includes a piece of the very first meteorite documented to have fallen to earth in 1492. Even see meteorites from Mars! At the PARI gift shop, buy a piece of a meteorite to take home.
PARI is located about 35 miles from the Asheville area. It's along the Forest Heritage National Scenic Byway (NC Highway 215). Admission is $10/person. Free for ages 10 and under. Go to the PARI website.
- Saturday Stargazer's Journey: Join a small group to work with an astronomical educator to observe the night sky. The evening (7:30-11:30 PM) begins with dinner and program. Watch the sun set from their observation deck with 360-degree views of Pisgah National Forest. After dark, move to the Sky Deck with optical telescopes waiting. $50/person. Most Saturday nights. Go to their website for info & tickets.
- May 5, 2018: Space Day Open House: The 200-acre campus is open for activities and events for all ages. Campus admission is free with a small fee for some activities. 10 AM until 11 PM. AdventureDome planetarium hosts. Look at the sun with solar telescopes. See the expanded Exhibit Gallery with space artifacts, meteorites and minerals. Research and education programs will be highlighted at locations across the campus. Weather permitting, enjoy night sky observing from 9-11 PM and a sunset tour at Optical Ridge at 8 PM.
- October 20, 2018 - Frightful FriendFest: Haunted hayrides, bonfire ghost storytelling, scary scavenger hunts, telescope observing and much more!
During 2017, they received a lot of international attention for being a prime location for the Total Solar Eclipse. Their location in the direct path, combined with their variety of telescopes and research equipment, attracted astronomers from around the world! Read more.
Photo above by Spencer Black, Black Visual
Future of PARI
This non-profit group has some ambitious plans for PARI, to ensure that science excites the imagination. Coming soon will be a lodge, cafeteria and a host of science camps for students of all ages. Behind the scenes, it is repurposing buildings to become a highly-secured data center. They have been chosen by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) as the primary North American repository for astronomical photographic glass plates and film (they have 340,000+ so far). They work closely with the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the U.S. Naval Observatory and numerous universities. They welcome donations.
PARI is about 35 miles (60 minutes) from Asheville Airport area.
- Take I-26 East to the Exit 40 for the Airport and NC 280 West. Turn right.
- Drive to Brevard (16 miles) and NC 280 becomes US 64 West. Drive through town.
- About 9 miles past Brevard on US 64, turn right onto NC 215 North.
- Drive 6 miles and turn left on Macedonia Church Road.
- Go 1.7 miles to the entrance.
Address: 1 PARI Drive, Rosman, NC 28772 (Some GPS units use Lake Toxaway as the town).
In its third mission, this campus has a fascinating history.
- 1963-1985: NASA picked this location from a worldwide search to build their network of satellite tracking and data collection stations. The "Rosman Satellite Tracking and Data Acquisition Facility" was the nation’s primary east coast satellite-tracking facility. The 26m East Radio Telescope, one of two on the campus, was commissioned in 1963 as the first parabolic dish in NASA’s Spacecraft Tracking and Data (Acquisition) Network (STADAN). In 1964 this instrument received the first pictures of Earth from space (Nimbus-1 satellite) and in 1967 received the first TV transmission from space (ATS-1 satellite).
- 1981-1995: The Department of Defense (DOD) took over and used the site for satellite data collection with 350 employees. The “smiley” face on PARI’s 4.6m radio telescope was painted as a joke during the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was intensely interested in the DOD base and often sent satellites to photograph the campus. Each Soviet photo contained a “smiley face” as a friendly wave. Today “Smiley” is a student favorite and is used remotely via the Internet by middle and high school students and teachers to study radio astronomy.
- 1998-today: After several years of inactivity at the site, the government decided to dismantle the facility. Recognizing its tremendous value and potential, Don and Jo Cline rescued the campus, formed a non-profit and gifted the 200-acre campus to it.
More Info: Go to the PARI website.
Also See: The Astronomy Club of Asheville has two observatories for star gazing. Read about their monthly events.