What was one person’s trash has now become one school’s treasure. Located in the Earth to Sky Park in Burnsville, the Bare Dark Sky Observatory has become a place of wonder and discovery for students of Mayland Community College and the general public.
“At night, the sky is just huge. You don’t often get big skies in the mountains here like you do out west, but it really opens up because the observatory is located on a knob,” said Margaret Earley-Thiele, foundation director for Mayland Community College. “When you’re up there, you get this huge sky to see those objects in the night sky. It’s surreal and makes you feel small in this universe.”
Initially, the vast property was a mica mine in the middle part of the 20th century, only to close and then be transformed into a landfill for Yancey and Mitchell counties. By the end of the 1990s, the landfill was reaching capacity, soon to be transformed into the EnergyXchange, which transformed methane from the closed landfill into energy to fuel artist studios and other projects onsite.
“But, eventually after about 12 years, the methane ran out and the EnergyXchange ended,” Earley-Thiele said. “The property was co-owned by Yancey and Mitchell counties. They didn’t want to deal with the next step for the property, so they asked Mayland if we’d like to take over the management for it.”
For a period, Mayland Community College was using the property for extra classroom space, which included a horticulture program. As fate would have it, one of the MCC staff members was an amateur astronomer, who would go out to the property at night and gaze at the stars because of the immersive darkness atop the knob (a 360-degree view with an elevation of 2,736 feet).
“He told us there’s this organization, the International Dark-Sky Association, that certifies parks as Dark Sky Places, and that MCC could possibly get the certification,” Earley-Thiele said. “The president of the college told him to go for it and, two years later, we were certified, becoming the first Dark Sky Park in North Carolina.”
Aside from the gazing aspect of the park, attendees can also view the night sky through a large custom-built Newtonian telescope (the largest public telescope in the state) and small Meade planetary telescope. Mayland Community College also offers astronomy courses.
“What you can see through the Newtonian telescope is incredible, like the rings of Saturn and the gaps between the rings,” Earley-Thiele said. “It’s like you’re in a rocket ship looking out the window, viewing different segments of the moon and various star clusters.”
And with all of this cosmic exploration also comes an urgent need on planet Earth.
“A big part of our mission with the park is about dark sky education and really informing the community about why it’s important to have dark skies,” Earley-Thiele said. “It’s about preserving and protecting what’s above by mitigating light pollution down here on the ground, and how that affects the health of our environment.”
For Mayland Community College, the observatory is part of a larger picture the school is creating of a rural academic hub with resources and possibilities not necessarily found at most colleges and universities.
“We’re always expanding and evolving. This year we’ll also be opening a planetarium,” Earley-Thiele said. “We work really hard on community development and offering things that are unique to our area, and the observatory is one of those things that brings the community together.”
This post is adapted from our annual Welcome to Western North Carolina magazine. Click here to read more online, or click here to request your free copy.