Starlight access


Dear Ace: After reading C-VILLE’s report on 25 lesser-known local stars, I got to thinking about the light-polluted night sky, replete with myriad hidden galaxies and constellations that I don’t even know I’ve been missing. What is a would-be stargazer to do?—Siriusly-Starstruck-in-Charlottesville

Worry not, young skywatcher. To quote Oscar Wilde, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” And so, as the world burns around us, we turn our eyes toward the heavens in greater numbers. How else do you explain the recent rash of Carl Sagan/Stephen Hawking auto-tune mixes on YouTube, except as a reaffirmation of the cosmic destiny that seemed so clearly ours in 1970? Indeed, President Obama’s sudden renewal of NASA’s budget, with the goal of putting an American on Mars sometime in the coming 30s, seems to Ace like it were meant to reassure us that our space-faring ambitions—and broadly, the world more or less as we know it—will still exist in twenty years’ time.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do now to scratch that celestial itch. The Ivy Creek Natural Area and the Outdoor Adventure Social Club have both been known to conduct periodic stargazing excursions. Then again, if you’re after a more intimate encounter with the heavenly bodies, you’ll want to check out UVA’s Leander McCormick Observatory during its free public nights, from 7-9pm on the first and third Friday of every month. Weather permitting, you’ll have the opportunity to gaze into the starry abyss through a variety of telescopes, including the Observatory’s 26-inch Alvan Clark Refractor, dedicated in 1885. 

You’ll also want to check out UVA’s Fan Mountain Observatory, located approximately 15 miles south of Charlottesville. Whereas today UVA uses McCormick Observatory primarily for education and public outreach programs, the majority of the University’s astronomical research takes place at Fan Mountain, which features a broader and more modern array of equipment. Public nights at the Fan Mountain Observatory occur only twice a year, in April and October. Be advised: tickets sell out fast.

But if you’re craving immediate stellar satisfaction, or can’t be bothered to get off the couch, there’s always the Starmap Pro iPhone/iPod Touch app. For $18.99, the program will show you, as you point your gadget’s eyepiece in a particular direction, the corresponding slice of sky. It’s not quite the same as full exposure to the naked cosmos, but at least you know what you’re missing. 

You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 21 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to