Telescope opens residents' eyes to the stars

The silo that contains Liberty University's 24-inch telescope is seen at the school's observatory on Candler's Mountain. The telescope is the largest in the area. (Photo by Max Oden/The News & Advance)

Lynchburg is a sea of lights to the west of Candlers Mountain. Cross over and it’s the stars that shine.

This summer, Liberty University added a research-grade telescope to its observatory near the LU Equestrian Center in Campbell County.

Currently open to Liberty students and staff, the observatory has had crowds in the range of 40 to 70 visitors on some clear weekend nights.

“I think that anybody, almost anybody, has an inherent fascination with the night sky,” said professor Scott Long, who teaches mathematics and astronomy at Liberty.

The telescope is about twice the height of a man on its mount within the observatory dome. Its mirror is 24 inches. Nearby, a computer screen shows a map of the night sky.

Just clicking on a star or a planet sends the observatory dome rumbling around to a new position, moving the telescope.

Josh Bulles, an observatory employee and recent Liberty graduate enjoys showing visitors Alberio, the beak of the constellation Cignus, the giant swan.

To the naked eye, it looks like a single star. Through the viewer of the telescope, it’s revealed as two stars, one burning yellow and the other shining blue.

The yellow star actually is two different stars, though they are not easily distinguishable even with high powered telescopes.

Retired professor James Van Eaton was instrumental in pushing for Liberty to build the observatory, opened in 2013 and in paving the way for the eventual installation of the telescope. The school searched for the darkest part of campus for the observatory and found it near the equestrian center on the far side of the mountain from main campus.

The observatory has some smaller telescopes that can be used by classes or individuals as well as an in-door classroom, which is lit red at night, so as not to disrupt students’ night vision.

Long and his colleague, professor Randy Tomkins said they anticipate the telescope would be used for research projects in the future — perhaps in conjunction with a physics major if one is added.

In the short term, they said, the astronomy club might use it for smaller projects, or it could be used to contribute data for projects led by other universities or scientific groups.

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Contact Jessie Pounds at (434) 385-5561 or jpounds@newsadvance.com. Find her on Twitter: @JessiePounds.

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