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MISSION:

POSSIBLE
THE PROMISE OF PISGAH

The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute is rising from the


ashes of the Cold War as a research facility with great potential.
By Stuart J. Goldman

T
ucked away in the Appalachian foothills, is involved the focus is strictly on science and education.
up several miles of winding road north of Ros- The site has something of a checkered history. A parcel
man, North Carolina, sits an out-of-place com- of land in the Pisgah National Forest was originally
plex surrounded by high fences and No Tres- cleared in the early 1960s to build a tracking station for
passing signs. This is no minor roadside diversion: 20 NASA. The facility was one of a worldwide network of
buildings spread over 200 acres, all lorded over by a pair such stations, each outfitted with two 26-meter (85-foot)
of giant radio antennas. The old-timers in Rosman know antennas to keep constant communication with astro-
some high-tech high jinks once went on here years ago, nauts aboard the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, along
but when the Cold War ended the government people with numerous smaller dishes to track other satellites.
moved out and locked the gate behind them. The need for such facilities waned with the advent of the
Now the compound is stirring to life again. The quiet Space Shuttle, because relay satellites in geostationary or-
mountain site with the shadowy history is being reborn as bits proved to be more efficient. Thus, NASA shut down
the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI, pro- the Rosman station.
nounced perry) with a full-time staff of 10 and numer- In 1981, however, a new tenant moved in: the Depart-
ous volunteers. This time around, no politics or espionage ment of Defense. For nearly a decade and a half, the

42 October 2001 Sky & Telescope 2001 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
Top: Recently restored to track the sky, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institutes 26 East radio telescope greets another morning, ready for
observations. Photograph by Pieter Ibelings. Bottom: At the height of its service to NASA, the satellite-tracking station near Rosman, North Car-
olina, communicated with Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. NASA abandoned the complex prior to the Space Shuttle program. In 1981, the De-
partment of Defense moved in. This aerial photograph was taken around 1991. Courtesy PARI.

2001 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. Sky & Telescope October 2001 43
Y
W
PK
MISSION: POSSIBLE THE PROMISE OF PISGAH TE NNE SSE E 181
E

G
Knoxville 81 77

D
40 RI
NO RTH

E
441 23 U
BL
National Security Agency (NSA) did who-knows-what within Great Smoky Mts. Asheville 40 Hickory
National Park
its top-secret fortress in the forest. Presumably, the antennas
were used to listen in on communications passing through for-
23
74
CA ROLINA
Hendersonville
eign satellites. But the end of the Cold War and government Brevard
74
74 26 Charlotte
cost-cutting once again led to the abandonment of the facility, Rosman
85
and in 1995 its ownership returned to the U.S. Forest Service.
Greenville Spartanburg

Mountain Land Dealing 19 26

As you might expect, the Forest Service didnt have much use 23 385
77
25
for a space-and-spy relic. So how did a formerly clandestine
government facility find its way into the arms of a group of
441 85
SO UTH
astronomers, engineers, and their helpers? C A R O L I N A

S&T: STEVEN SIMPSON


The credit goes to J. Donald Cline, an amateur astronomer Athens Columbia
since childhood who worked as an electrical engineer for
nearly four decades for Bell Telephone Laboratories and then G E O R G I A 50 km
30 mi 26
Atlanta
Micro Computer Systems the latter created when Bell
moved to New Jersey and Cline and several colleagues wanted PARI is within a few hours drive from several major cities.
to stay in North Carolina. He sold his company in 1996. Sup-
posedly, I was retired, he explains. Instead, he became more Ghosts from the Past
involved with astronomy education. I changed my focus to The remnants of NASA and a supersecret legacy remain
helping pull the physics and astronomy departments of some throughout the campus. At its height the facility employed
universities together, to get them to communicate. upward of 250 people. Today it has the character of a deserted
During one of these initiatives with Appalachian State theme park or a set from the movie Futureworld an aspect
University in Boone, North Carolina, Cline thought that the not lost on others. One of the potential buyers of the place was
school should have a radio telescope. He had heard about a a film company, says Michael Castelaz, the centers director of
facility the Rosman tracking station that was closing astronomical studies. But they wanted to blow everything up
down, so he went to take a look in the hope that one of the for their movie. That didnt set well.
antennas might be donated. We set up a meeting, went down, The welcoming PARI sign by the entrance road is offset by
and stood at the base of an 85-foot antenna, he recalls. Im the government-issued No Trespassing signs that still hang
looking up at it and thinking, Were not going to move this! on the propertys chainlink fence. A short drive up a hill brings
A couple of months later word spread that the Forest Service you to an old guard station, your first indication of the extent
wanted to offload the property somehow. Otherwise, the land of the campus. All of the buildings remain, but the Defense
would be completely cleared and returned to its forested state. Department left empty concrete pads where its antennas once
Cline became interested again. The government couldnt sell stood. Nevertheless, the two 26-meter dishes, each standing
him the land outright, but a trade could be made. So Cline some 60 meters high, dominate the scene.
helped set up a public, nonprofit foundation and purchased To the right of the empty guardhouse, visitors are greeted by
two buildings and some land in the area. Clines foundation Smiley a 4.6-meter antenna with a happy face painted on
had property the Forest Service wanted, and the Forest Service it. This humorous touch resulted from unknown cold warriors
had facilities Cline wanted. They swapped. The U.S. Congress who figured that their counterparts in the Soviet Union should
approved the trade, and he officially acquired the property on get a smug hello when their reconnaissance satellites flew over.
January 14, 1998. PARI was born. Other signs of spydom abound: the inch-thick glass in the

Left and middle: Indications of the complexs top-secret past abound, from super dead bolts on doors to political commentary by former resi-
dents. Right: This isnt a spy bunker but a quarter-mile-long tunnel built by NASA to connect the facilitys two major office buildings.

44 October 2001 Sky & Telescope 2001 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
Left: J. Donald Cline founded PARI with the goal of creating a national public observatory. Middle: Michael Castelaz served as a consultant for
PARI while teaching at Eastern Tennessee State University. I was made the offer to work here full time, and it took me about a millisecond to
decide. Now he directs PARIs astronomical and educational programs. Here he proudly describes the upgraded control systems for the 26-
meter dishes. Right: Charles S. Osborne, PARIs technical director, laments that visiting children are often just as interested in the frogs and fish
in the small pond behind him as in the radio telescopes. Photographs by Johnny Horne unless otherwise noted.

windows of the main structure (Building 1), the switch boxes for seven or eight miles worth of co-ax out of the floor in the
three separate phone systems (red, secure, and outside), the room over us.
doors with locks that take three keys to open, and the pistol While the PARI staff hasnt had much luck in getting rid of
range. Then there are the two soundproof trailerlike buildings the stuff they dont need, donations have been a significant
encircled by a razor-wire-topped fence; these were probably source of resources. Cline takes a page from the NSA regarding
used to conduct meetings or perhaps covert interrogations how much money it has taken to bring PARI to its current
but now they serve as dorms for PARI staff and visitors. state. Its supposed to be kept a secret, but its several million
As much as Cline and the rest of PARIs staff would prefer dollars. At the present time, PARI has no debt. We survive on
everyone to envision the facilitys future, they cant escape its contributions and a few grants.
past. Castelaz tells of a blunt exchange he had with a third-
grade student during a tour. The boy pointedly asked, Are Current Facilities
you a spy? The centerpieces of PARI are the two 26-meter fully steerable
No, Castelaz replied. antennas, and putting these behemoths back into service has
Where are they? the boy pressed. Are they all dead? been the top priority. New drive-control systems by DFM
Engineering were installed as well as STV autoguiders by
Back in Business Santa Barbara Instrument Group. Early this year 26 West
Getting the equipment running again has been a gradual could track the sky at sidereal rate, and by July the technical
process. Cline hired a couple of the people who used to work team had achieved the same for 26 East.
there and knew the systems, and they spent the first year fixing David A. Moffett (Furman University) has already used 26
leaky roofs as well as checking electrical and other systems. West to detect several pulsars. One of only two radio as-
Since then, rooms in Building 1 have been converted into offices, tronomers in South Carolina, Moffett studied rapidly spin-
a conference room, telescope-control ning neutron stars at the Very Large
rooms, test areas, and storage plenty Array in New Mexico. Now hes
of storage. working to create a program to detect
Nevertheless, the cleanup continues. about a dozen such objects. Its quite
Charles S. Osborne, PARIs technical a challenge, he says. Once the point-
director, explains that 30,000 square ing and tracking is stable, we hope to
feet of space consists of raised floors monitor pulsars that are known to
topped with removable panels that glitch, that is, suddenly change their
conceal miles of coaxial and fiber-optic spin rate. We have a great demon-
cables. Only a small fraction of the stration tool at the moment, and we
wiring is used for computer and data want to make it into a great research
systems; the rest needs to go. Youd tool.
think you could recycle it, but you Hidden from the rest of the cam-
cant get anybody to buy stuff like pus by a small ridge is a 12.2-meter
this, Osborne says. We figure we took radio telescope enclosed in a radome.
Castelaz explains that the Defense
The 4.6-meter radio dish known as Smiley Department left this one behind even
once used to bolster national security will though it is portable and two other
be used by students to study the Milky Way. enclosed antennas were removed. It

2001 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. Sky & Telescope October 2001 45
MISSION: POSSIBLE THE PROMISE OF PISGAH

would be nice to put it back online, he says, noting that a


similar dish is atop Kitt Peak in Arizona. The pair could work
in parallel for interferometric studies.
PARI also has big plans for Smiley, the only other antenna
the government left behind. Engineers from South Carolina
State University are working to upgrade the dishs controls so
that it can be operated remotely. Eventually middle- and
high-school teachers participating in the School for Galactic
Radio Astronomy (SGRA) program will learn how to operate
Smiley via the Internet.
New equipment is gradually being added to PARIs assets.
Near the northern edge of the property, just below a heli-
copter landing pad, is a Jupiter-Io antenna. Tuned to listen
to the 15- to 30-megahertz emissions made by Jupiter as Io
cuts through the planets magnetic field, the instrument is
also used to monitor solar activity.
Close by, an empty 15-foot-wide observatory dome sits on
a concrete pad where an antenna once stood. For years the
dome served as a childs backyard playhouse. It has since been
cleaned up and relocated. Despite the new sites southern ex-
posure, theres nothing inside the dome yet.
Across the valley from the vacant dome is the so-called op-
tical ridge, home of PARIs lone optical instrument. Mercedes
Lopez-Morales, a graduate student from the University of
North Carolina, Chapel Hill, used her research grant to set up
an 8-inch computer-controlled telescope, CCD camera, and
all the equipment and software to automate the facility. PARIs refurbished 26-meter antennas once again track the sky.
Lopez-Morales is looking for cool, M-type dwarf stars, partic-
ularly those in eclipsing-binary systems whose stars periodically Grander Plans
pass in front of each other as seen from Earth. By automatically With so much real estate to work with, PARI staffers feel their
scanning the sky, taking up to 150 exposures a night, she expects opportunities are endless. One hope is to populate the optical
to find 40,000 new variable stars and to determine the masses ridge with additional instruments. We want a 2- to 3-meter tele-
of the stars in such binary systems. scope, Castelaz says. He notes that atmospheric seeing remains
Another resource has proved to be extremely popular with near 2 arcseconds on good nights and that airflow is just about
neighboring school systems. A grant from the Community perfect. Plans for the 26-meter antennas include radio spec-
Foundation of Western North Carolina allowed PARI to troscopy. Moffett would like to see the dishes used for studying
purchase a 7-meter-wide Starlab portable planetarium in methanol, which is found in clouds near star-forming regions.
February. Robert Hayward, an astronomy educator from the Cline cant help but brag about the property: because PARI
Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta, Georgia, came out of is nestled in a national forest, he boasts that its surroundings
retirement to take the star theater on the road. As Castelaz ex- will be the same a century from now. We want to make this
plains, as soon as the schools found out about the planetarium, into a national public laboratory, not a private facility. But, as
the travel schedule quickly filled up. with other aspects of science and education, it takes money to
maintain, and PARIs Web site (www.pari.edu) features a long
wish list. We could use a lot of help, Cline says. If over the
years we dont get the support, well go away.
He would also like to step back a bit and let others take
charge. Im trying to get a site director, someone to run the fa-
cility, who has a background in both radio and optical astrono-
my. Right now, Im more involved than I had intended to be.
Even if Cline bows out from running PARI, there are built-in
safeguards. I set up the foundation so that if we are not suc-
cessful in maintaining the funding and we do have to go away,
then it can never go back to private [interests]. The facility
would first be offered to some university system; lacking a
taker, everything reverts to the Forest Service, back to the
path it would have had originally.

Associate editor Stuart Goldmans visit to PARI brought back


Graduate student Mercedes Lopez-Morales received a grant to build memories of his college days when he worked in the 1960s-vintage
a remote-controlled observatory at PARI to search for low-mass stars. buildings at NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

46 October 2001 Sky & Telescope 2001 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.