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Stellar Science Shines Through The Clouds At Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute

The August 21st Great American Solar Eclipse  was one of the most  watched and studied astronomical events in  history.  Western North Carolina was a great place to do both.   BPR’s Helen Chickering spent the day at the Pisgah National Research Institute in Brevard.   The former NASA tracking station was in the path of totality and hosted a day of stellar science for the public.

It’s shortly after 9 on the morning of the Eclipse and a steady flow of scientists, amateur astronomers and visitors make their way onto the grounds of the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, a former NASA tracking station turned science education center, tucked in the Pisgah national forest, just outside of Brevard.

Don Cline is perched on a hill – answering questions and taking it all in.  

“I’m president of Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute which we pronounce, as a southern pronunciation, as “Perry”

Cline has been preparing for this day ever since he acquired the 200 acre campus – 20 years ago.

“I knew back when we acquired this site there would be a solar eclipse coming over,” Cline says with a smile, “and today that the day that is occurring!”

An exciting day and an important one for scientists, because PARI just happens to have a huge collection of telescopes, including giant radio telescopes.

“We at PARI are the first ever radio observatory to be in the path of a total solar eclipse.

That’s PARI science educator Lebby Moran, who says the eclipse offers a great chance to study the brightness temperature of the sun’s outer atmosphere called the corona, and unlike optical telescopes, clouds don’t matter. 

“Radio waves are the biggest of the wavelengths and move through clouds like they don’t exist – because to the radio waves they don’t.” says Moran.

A good thing because clouds started to move in.  Outside the visitor center, a planting ceremony was underway.  Going into the ground was a second generation moon tree, a Sycamore was grown from seeds taken on board the Apollo 14 mission to the moon by Astronaut Stuart Roosa in 1971.

Roosa’s daughter Rosemary, with the Moon Tree Foundation,  helped plant the tree.

“I hope this tree inspires everyone,” says  Rosemary Roosa.

Inside, there were presentations by NASA scientists and educators

As totality time drew near, crowds moved into their viewing spots, many perched on an overlook dubbed optical ridge, Buncombe County Representative Brian Turner was there with his daughter Eleanor

“PARI has such a tremendous history, going back to the Apollo missions and it is just this little jewel tucked up in the mountains.”

HC: Have you ever seen anything like this before? 

“No, I’ve never seen anything like this and I’m very excited?” said Eleanor Turner

There were all kinds of eclipse science underway on the campus below. NASA  launched  kites to measure weather changes a Students from Lenoir Rhyne University joined 50 other teams across the country including Southwestern Community College in Sylva in a massive eclipse ballooning project, sending helium balloons equipped with cameras to capture the eclipse from the edge of space.  

Finally, it was time for totality,

“You can see the shadows coming over the hill!”  “It’s getting close!”

While the clouds stole most of the show, like the radio telescopes – the crowds here didn’t seem to care. And they cheered as the temperature dropped and the skies darkened.  

“Okay, temperature is going down!”

“It started to get soo dark and I was so excited, “says Eleanor Turner, “I was practically jumping up and down!”

So was PARI’s Lebby Moran

“We were getting sort of like bits and pieces through the radio about what was going on.”

HC: From the guys at the radio telescopes

“Yeah the guys down at the giant dishes,” says Moran, “We saw a little bit of rotation from the sun, saw a couple of things changing as the moon was moving in front of it.  It was really, really cool!”

Cool corona observations that scientists will now begin to analyze with hopes of uncovering new information that will help them better understand this giant star.

At the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in Rosman, I’m Helen Chickering BPR News.

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.
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