The University of Virginia has an outstanding Astronomy Department. Twice a year, it opens its Fan Mountain Observatory (about 16 miles south of Charlottesville) to the public and donors to the Department. We recently toured the observatory on a perfectly clear night, and were able to see the nebula M15 through the observatory’s 40-inch reflecting telescope. Some mind-boggling facts about M15: it is a cluster of over 100,000 stars 175 light years wide, and located 33,600 light years from earth; it was discovered in 1746; and its age is estimated at 12 billion years!
The Astronomy Department also operates the Leander McCormick Observatory on the grounds of UVA. Built in 1885, it’s 26 inch refractor was at one time the 2nd largest such telescope in the world. The McCormick Observatory is open to the public on the first and third Fridays of each month, and when conditions are good, guests may peer at the heavens through its scopes. The astronomy graduate students who operate the telescopes are also most helpful in explaining what guests are seeing.
For a most unusual and entertaining evening, check out UVA’s observatories — you’ll see and learn about some real stars, planets and other heavenly objects, and you’ll appreciate our world and the universe that much more.