UVA, Norfolk State & Me [Fan Mountain Observatory]

I live in Hampton Roads so I know of the local HBCUs (Hampton University & Norfolk State University). I’m also a graduate of the University of Virginia (Go Hoos!). So when Tom invited me to visit the Fan Mountain Observatory, just oustide the grounds of UVA, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s only open to the publice twice a year. With the door open, I walked in. And yes, Norfolk State owns one of the telescopes.

The Trip to UVA

Arrival in Charlottesville, VA
Arrival in Charlottesville, VA

Fresh off seeing my UVA Cavaliers win the NCAA Mens Basketball Championship, I couldn’t wait to visit grounds. In fact I packed all my UVA gear and prepared to buy more. Ok so I was wearing most of it, but who cares, I am going back to Charlottesville, VA. I picked up Tom just as the rain hit and loaded the car with his telescope and imaging gear. It was an easy drive to UVA. I told Tom we’re going to have to stop at the Corner and go to Mincers because I’ve got to shop. Of course we were not alone. Mincers was packed and it was loaded with all the Championship stuff an Alumn and Fan could ever want. With purchases complete, we checked into the hotel and planned the next steps to the Fan Mountain Observatory opening.

Fan Mountain Ticket April 2019
Fan Mountain Ticket April 2019

The Observatory at Fan Mountain

Fan Mountain Comples: 31 in Tinsley Reflector Telescope
Fan Mountain Comples: 31 in Tinsley Reflector Telescope

The road to the top is narrow. Traffic was only allowed up between 7 pm and 9 pm. After that it’s one way down the mountain. Driving, my 4 wheel drive SUV, made the ascent easy. Fifteen minutes later we arrived and began immediately taking pictures. The UVA team set up specific times to tour the 30 inch and 40 inch telescopes. They explained the benefits of using the infra-red light spectrum to view night sky objects. They also detailed how each telescope works and their history at UVA.

Fan Mountain Observatory Complex
Fan Mountain Observatory Complex: 40 inch telescopes.

It was interesting to note that the students are focused on the non visible light wavelengths. So for me as a backyard astrophotographer, it sparked a lot of questions that the students enjoyed answering. The 31 inch scope does not have motors on the ascension and declination axes. Because it’s manual, it is not used often. The 40 inch (1 meter) is a massive telescope. It sits on an isolated 2 story concrete pier and barely fits under the dome. If the weather cooperated, I’m sure that would have given us a great view.

The RRRT from Norfolk State

RRRT Dome at Fan Mountain
RRRT Dome at Fan Mountain

The RRRT or Rabit Response Robotic Telescope is fully automated. The scope is owned by Norfolk State University and maintained by the UVA team. It is one sweet telescope. Tom and I were given a private tour of the facility by Dr. Edward M. Murphy, Professor of Astronomy. It is connected to Skynet. Yes Terminator fans, Skynet does exist! Skynet is a product of the University of North Carolina (UNC). To begin with, this particular Skynet makes sense. It’s a network of telescopes that look at the sky. With Skynet, a automated telescope like the RRRT can be remotely given a specific target to photograph. Subsequently, 13 telescopes are connected to Skynet and the system knows which telescope is available based on weather stations at each location. Dr. Murphy offered me an account to use the RRRT and of course I accepted. When I get the photo I’ll show you.

24 Inch RRRT at Fan Mountain
24 Inch RRRT (Rapid Response Robotic Telescope) at Fan Mountain

The RRRT is a Ritchey-Chretien telescope. Separating itself from other types of telescopes, this type contains two mirrors. The primary is concave and the secondary convex. The primary mirror is 24 inches in diameter. Therefore it can gather significant amounts of light. It has a large CCD camera. The camera is an SBIG STX-16803 with a 4096×4096 pixel sensor. Also, it sports a set of Johnson/Cousins UBVRI filters. I’ve requested the RRRT to photograph Messier 51 or the Whirlpool Galaxy. My patience will be tested since Virginia weather has been on the cloudy and rainy side for months.

Fun Trip For All

Incidentally, using this telescope does not mean I’m done with my scopes. However, it simply means I’ve got a professional scope on the team. I am grateful to both Tom (for the invite) and Dr. Murphy (for the invite to SkyNet). Thank you for being you. Clear skies!

Thomas Epps & Dr. Edward Murphy
Thomas Epps & Dr. Edward Murphy in front of the RRRT at Fan Mountain

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