North Carolina Science Scene

A Duke community guide to science attractions across NC

#1 | Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute

September 20, 2022
Science Magazine

Colossal towering telescopes, lingering government secrets, and gorgeous vistas? Yes, please! Grab your backpack and sense of adventure, and let’s head to Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI). A non-profit astronomical observatory nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, PARI is a gem of science education and exploration and is — as Director of Education and Astronomy Melanie Crowson puts it — quite possibly “the most unique site in the US.”  

Perhaps the most prominent of PARI’s atypical attractions are its two 26-meter radio telescopes — the only radio telescopes in the state of North Carolina. These gargantuan scientific instruments loom on opposite sides of the facility, ensuring that a telescope is always in sight. The campus is also home to a museum with exhibits on NASA space technology and missions, rocks and minerals, and meteorites.

PARI’s location in the Appalachian temperate rainforest of Pisgah National Forest offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities. One of only three North Carolina sites certified as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association, PARI boasts impressive biodiversity in addition to dramatic darkness for astronomical viewing. The site has several nature trails and a mountain ridge observation deck with breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its other ridge has a night sky viewing facility with optical telescopes, as well as an official GPS receiver station.

Large radio telescope

Though the 200-acre campus is chock-full of interesting information and sights, PARI also hosts dedicated special events. Their most frequent offerings are astronomy viewings. Reservations for these starry nights are available on roughly a monthly basis for meteor showers, eclipses, or other rare astronomical occurrences. PARI also hosts space-inspired paint parties: get your paint on with a fun combination of space facts, art, and snacks! In addition to its hackathon for the NASA Space Apps Challenge this fall,  PARI holds summer science education and space exploration camps for middle and high school students. (Attention Duke students: if you enjoy science and science education, check out their hybrid counselor–research intern positions).

But how did a world-class research facility — complete with giant telescopes — end up in the rural NC mountains? Originally built as NASA’s Rosman Tracking Station in 1961, this location was used for radio telescope applications research and as a communication station for satellites and manned space missions. In 1981, the Department of Defense (DOD) took over the facility. Most of the site’s history under DOD management remains classified, but it is known that the site and its technology were used to spy on foreign satellites during the Cold War era. Nothing says fun like good old-fashioned espionage! Today, PARI’s mascot, Smiley the telescope, is a holdover from DOD control of the site. This small radio telescope features a smiley face that was painted as a prank on the foreign intelligence satellites that frequently photographed the site. 

After ceasing DOD operations in 1995, the site was purchased by PARI founder and president Don Cline with his wife Jo Cline in 1999. Cline is a devoted patron of astronomy and STEM education at institutions and organizations across North Carolina. His mission in founding PARI was to continue making science more accessible and to save the technology left behind by the DOD for future research use.

“[Cline] does not believe in taking any of these tools or artifacts or experiences and locking them up. He wants people to hold them, to touch them, to experience them and really get to see how they work” said Timothy DeLisle, Director of Software Engineering and Field Studies at PARI.

Building on its founder’s mission, PARI’s main goal in the research sphere is to act as a facilitator. While the organization conducts some of its own research, it primarily lends access to telescopes and other scientific instruments — as well as advice and aid from professionals — to researchers across the United States. PARI also hosts technology for universities and research institutes from around the globe. Its Astronomical Photographic Data Archive is one of the largest archives of historical glass plate astronomical data in the world and also provides valuable data for researchers.

Located about 30-minutes from the town of Brevard, PARI is pretty remote. While PARI itself is a great attraction, several other points of interest nearby would fill a couple days with fun on a road trip from Duke. The Pisgah National Forest boasts numerous hiking trails, countless waterfalls, and is home to attractions like Sliding Rock. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs through the national forest and provides a great opportunity for scenic driving and beautiful mountainous vistas. Brevard itself is also worth a visit. This charming community features a classic Main Street with shops and restaurants and believe it or not, is known for its population of white squirrels.

For an otherworldly trip full of star-gazing, cool mountain air, and natural beauty, you can’t beat PARI. Make sure to plan ahead — PARI isn’t open to the public except for special events or by appointment. Here are the details:


Hours: visit by appointment only

Admission cost: yes, varies by event

Recommended Excursion: Fall Break/long weekend

Located about an hour southwest of Asheville, PARI is approximately a 5-hour drive from Duke University.

All photos courtesy of Lydia Cox '25.

Lydia Cox

Lydia (Trinity ’25) is from Charleston, SC and is majoring in Biology. She enjoys nature photography, arts and crafts, and game/movie nights with friends!

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