#60. Stargaze at Open Observatory Night at O-Hill

The Leander McCormick Observatory at night.  Photo by George Privon.

The Leander McCormick Observatory at night. Photo by George Privon.

“O-Hill” often makes people think of the cafeteria-style food we all ate three (or more) times a day during our first-year.  Unless you took any of the intro-level astronomy classes to fill UVA’s math/science requirement, chances are slim that you would ever know about the real O-Hill.

The real O-Hill is actually an astronomy observatory (hence the name Observatory Hill, which has been abbreviated to O-Hill and reserved for the dining hall over the years).  Nestled away on an access road beyond Kellogg dorms and the O-Hill dining hall, the McCormick Observatory on top of Observatory Hill has almost zero light pollution and is the perfect place to spend a charming Friday night under the stars if you aren’t inclined to hit the bars.

Every first and third Friday of the month, the McCormick Observatory holds a “Public Night,” where anyone can drive up to the Observatory and take a look at Charlottesville’s gorgeous night sky.  This past Friday, I grabbed a friend and a parka and headed up to the Observatory to see what I could see.

A nebula like this is what you will commonly look at during an Open Night at O-Hill.  Image courtesy of www.galaxyimages.com

A nebula like this is what you will commonly look at during an Open Night at O-Hill. Image courtesy of http://www.galaxyimages.com

The Lowdown:

  • Go on a clear (and warm) night!  If you can go outside and see clouds, chances are you won’t be able to see the stars when you get up there.

    Great exhibit on "Spectroscopy" that shows you what stars are made of, while giving you a free light show.

    Great exhibit on “Spectroscopy” that shows you what stars are made of, while giving you a free light show.

  • But, if you don’t go on a clear night, don’t worry.  Within the Observatory is a mini-museum with awesome artifacts, like meteor cores from space and fun facts about all of your favorite planets.  Astronomy grad students are posted around the Observatory to answer any questions you have, too, so take advantage.  I went on a very cloudy, and cold, night and we still had a fabulous time!

    A meteor observer's notes from 1885, featured in the Observatory's museum.

    A meteor observer’s notes from 1885, featured in the Observatory’s museum.

  • You can still go out if you go stargazing!  Public nights will be held either from 7-9pm or from 9-11pm, but that doesn’t mean it is a 2-hour commitment.  If you are worried about nerding out on a Friday night and not having time to meet up with your friends on the Corner after, don’t.  We stayed at the Observatory for 30-45 minutes, and still managed to make it out after.  At the real O-Hill, it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too.

    Fun facts about some of Saturn's moons in the museum.

    Fun facts about some of Saturn’s moons in the museum.

  • That being said, it is a great excuse for a mellow Friday night if you need one!

    We got to hold a piece of a meteor's core! Nerdy...but awesome

    We got to hold a piece of a meteor’s core! Nerdy…but awesome

  • You need a car to get up there.  Since the Observatory is tucked away on a somewhat remote access road (as to avoid the light pollution), there are no forms of public transportation that get you there, so you will need a car and/or a friend with a car.  Click here for directions.

    Another of the museum's exhibits.

    Another of the museum’s exhibits.

  • It’s not the place where you go romantically stargazing with your special someone.  If you want to do that, I recommend a Garden late at night or somewhere like Lambeth field, but not the McCormick Observatory.  Here, you will be looking through telescopes, asking the grad students questions, and learning a heck of a lot about outer space.  This is like stargazing 2.0, so save the blanket and wine for another night.

    The largest of the telescopes at the Leander McCormick Observatory, with a 26 inch refractor.

    The largest of the telescopes at the Leander McCormick Observatory, with a 26 inch refractor.

  • Take advantage of this!  Not many schools can say they have an Observatory, let alone one that is so well kept and all-around awesome.  At the time it was dedicated in 1885, the McCormick Observatory was home to the largest telescope in the U.S.  You just can’t beat the opportunity to go and look through it!

All in all, heading up to the Observatory is not something that many people think to do, but that is an experience truly unique to UVA.

The next “Public Night” is March 15, from 9-11PM.  Call the Public Night Hotline at 434.243.1885 or visit the click here for more information!

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