Belk Astronomical Observatory

  • The Belk Astronomical Observatory at night
    Belk Astronomical Observatory
The Belk Astronomical Observatory sits at one of the highest points on the Claytor Nature Center property — approximately 960 feet above sea level — and benefits from a virtually unobstructed view of the entire night sky along the full horizon.

The observatory features a 177-square-foot dome housing the primary telescope, an observation deck equipped with 12 piers for mounting smaller telescopes, and a single-story building with an insulated control room and restrooms.

Astronomical study and night sky viewing are open to the University community, local schools, and the public.

The observatory was named after former state Sen. Irwin Belk of Charlotte, North Carolina, for his support and contributions.

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The Margaret G. L. Gilbert Telescope

The primary instrument at the Belk Observatory is an RC Optical Systems 20-inch (.51-meter) Truss Ritchey-Chretien telescope, a powerful research-quality scope whose particular optical design is the same one used in every major telescope in use today, including the Hubble Space Telescope. More information on this specific design can be found on the RC Optical Systems website.

The Gilbert Telescope is equipped with a charge-coupled device (CCD) camera, allowing for exceptional astrophotography that can be used for research and teaching purposes.

The telescope is digitally linked to the University of Lynchburg’s campus, allowing faculty to conduct astronomical research in conjunction with other regional colleges and universities.

This setup provides the University with one of the best-equipped observatories in the state.

Secondary Telescopes

The observatory also houses six Celestron CPC 800 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes for use in the roll-off roof observatory and observation deck.

Perfect for observing the moon and planets as well as deep space phenomena, these portable telescopes are the observatory’s primary teaching instruments.

Equipped with GPS technology and electronic digital compasses, the scopes are easy to set up and use. Additional features include Fastar-compatible optics that allow for 35 mm astrophotography and software that allows users to control the telescope remotely.

The observatory is proud to show you the night sky through one of our newest instruments, the StarGazer 13.1-inch Dobsonian telescope. The large aperture and field of view of this instrument offers stunning views of the deep night sky.

Solar Telescopes

The observatory houses three Coronado Instruments Personal Solar Telescopes (PSTs). These small, lightweight, easy-to-use instruments allow for daytime observations.

Equipped with a 400 mm focal length, 40 mm aperture, f/10 refractor with an integrated full aperture hydrogen alpha solar filter, the PSTs will allow observers to see detailed views of the sun and specific surface prominences, including sunspots and solar flares.

Astronomical Binoculars

Ten pairs of tripod-mounted Celestron Ultima 9 x 63 mm binoculars are available as teaching tools for wide-angle views of the night sky.

These binoculars allow students and astronomy enthusiasts to locate bright images of faint deep space objects that can then be viewed using one of the observatory’s telescopes.

Among the various phenomena easily seen in their 5-degree-wide field of view are the star clouds of Sagittarius, the spiral galaxy in the constellation Andromeda, and open star clusters of the Wild Duck and the Beehive.

Belk Observatory offers evening private programs for high school and college groups (grades 9+ or ages 14+). Our curricula promote science literacy, engage students in hands-on learning, and integrate newly released VDOE SOLs for astronomy, earth science and physical science!

We keep our programs small in order to foster learning and interaction. Program fees cover 1.5 hours of dedicated instruction from a Belk staff member, including viewing through telescopes when weather permits. The first half-hour of the program will be a topic-specific presentation and discussion, and the remainder will entail using the tools and equipment available at Belk to observe the night sky. Visibility is very dependent on weather, time of year, and moon phase. Most educational programs are scheduled during the winter months from November to March, after daylight saving time ends and before it begins again.


Star Formation and Stellar Objects

  • Explore the universe from the beginning of detectable time and space and learn about different galaxy types.
  • Dive into a molecular cloud where stars are born and discuss the different stages of star formation and the stellar life cycle.
  • Identify and focus in on stellar objects like a star cluster, galaxy, or interstellar cloud.

Planetary Systems

  • Delve into the stage of stellar evolution where a protoplanetary disk forms and discuss the types of objects that can be found in a planetary solar system.
  • In addition to a brief overview of the planets, learn about some of the past and ongoing science missions that explore the characteristics of the planetary objects around our own Sun.
  • Identify and focus in on planetary objects like the moon and a neighboring planet, or perhaps a satellite or meteors.

Astronomical Instrumentation

  • Understand how to use the sky as a tool for navigation and time-telling.
  • After a brief overview of the electromagnetic spectrum, discuss and explore some of the different technologies that humans use to detect astronomical objects.
  • Learn how spectral signatures can help identify chemical compounds and also measure temperature, distance, and age of an object or region.
  • Explore the inner workings of a basic telescope and help align some of our scopes at the observatory to view objects.

Custom Topic

If you’d like to learn more about a particular topic during your visit, let us know. We try to address custom requests, whenever possible.
INQUIRY FORM Please indicate your topic of interest on the inquiry form.
Evening activities may be subject to change according to weather conditions, but our programs are generally designed for either clear or cloudy skies. In many cases, cloudy winter afternoons turn into clear evenings. In the case of anticipated severe weather, your program coordinator will determine a course of action two to three hours in advance of your program. We will do our best to preserve program scheduling.
Program costs are for block registrations and must be paid in advance:

  • $150 for up to 15 students and two teachers. (Homeschool: up to 17 people, including minimum two adults)
  • $200 for 16-20 students and three teachers. (Homeschool: up to 23 people, including minimum three adults)
    • Groups of more than 20 students or 23 people must be arranged in advance, and scheduling is not guaranteed. Over-capacity groups may be split across two nights of instruction and incur additional fees.
General visitors are welcome to the Belk Observatory at the Claytor Nature Center. You’ll be able to look through our powerful telescopes and learn more about the universe during open houses and other public events! While you’re here, take advantage of the on-site campground.


Observatory Open House

The Belk Observatory hosts occasional Open House events, where visitors can tour several stations at the Observatory and see the sky through astronomical equipment. These events will be posted on our website.

Daytime Sky Series

Special equipment at the Belk Observatory allows viewers to see the sun and moon during the day! A select number of telescopes are available for viewing. These events are dependent on the moon phase and position in the sky, weather, and staff availability, and they usually occur during the morning hours of a weekday.

Generally, Daytime Sky Series events take place once a month.

Night Sky Parties

Twice a year, Belk Observatory offers larger, overnight, center-wide events to celebrate the awesome nature of our universe! These events feature activities and film screenings related to the cosmos on the education side of the center. With shuttles and a night hike across the property, guests will visit the observatory for a viewing session.

Periodically, there may be other ticketed opportunities to visit the observatory, like our Nights of the Four Seasons series and the annual Perseids Meteor Shower Party.

Programs will only be held with a clear or partly cloudy nighttime forecast; any weather call will be made by 3 p.m. the day of the event. The entire program will be outdoors on the Belk grounds and will include a short walk along the gravel driveway; please plan and dress accordingly.
Our programs are “give what you will” events, with a suggested donation of $5 per person. Contributions will support equipment maintenance and the continuation of our programs. Tax-deductible donations can be made to the Neal G. and Jane C. Sumerlin Observatory Support Fund. Individual or company program sponsors receive four tickets to the sponsored event and shout-outs via our event marketing.
How often do you have observatory programs?
We usually host a couple per month, depending on weather and what’s up in the sky. We try for a Daytime Sky Series event and an Open House each month.
How do I get tickets?
Links corresponding to the different event registrations are provided with each program description. Ticket requests can be made on the first day of the month of the scheduled observatory program, beginning at 9 a.m. If you have trouble accessing your ticket after registering, please email [email protected].
Are tickets available by phone?
How much do tickets cost?
Our monthly outreach programs are free, but we occasionally have ticketed events. For free events, please consider bringing a cash or check donation to support our efforts. Your contributions are greatly appreciated and they go directly toward helping maintain the equipment and supporting observatory programs. You can also make a tax-deductible donation online by selecting the Neal G. and Jane C. Sumerlin Observatory Support Fund in the dropdown list.
How many total tickets are available?
There are 20 tickets available for each observatory program.
How many tickets can I get at one time?
One person can request a maximum of four tickets.
Does everyone need a ticket, regardless of age?
Yes. We can have only 20 guests at this time. Children of any age are included in this number.
How soon after I request tickets will I know whether I have them?
You should receive an email message within five business days of your request. If you were successful in getting tickets, the message will have your ticket(s) attached. If you experience a delayed response or have trouble accessing your tickets, please contact [email protected] at least one day before the scheduled event.
What happens if I have tickets but can't make it?
If you are allotted tickets and can’t attend the program, please redistribute your tickets to others or let us know by emailing [email protected]. To encourage respect for our limited capacity, we have a no-show policy that prohibits registration for other events at the observatory for the next four months. We appreciate your understanding.
Will you redistribute my tickets for me?
With 48 hours or more advance notice, we will redistribute your tickets to others on the waiting list. To cancel, email [email protected].
What happens if there are clouds or rain the night of the program?
In the event of full cloud cover or inclement weather, it’s likely the event will be canceled. A weather decision will be made by 3 p.m. on the day of the event. Emails will be sent to registered participants by 5 p.m.
How will I know whether the observatory program is canceled or not?
In the event of a cancellation, we will send an email to the email address supplied during registration. You can also check our Facebook page for updates.
Are my tickets for one month good for later observatory programs?
No. The ticket distribution process starts over for the next month. If you are unable to attend an event for which you have been allotted tickets, please redistribute your tickets to others. Those who have confirmed reservations and who do not fill at least 50% of their spots will be prohibited from making reservations for the next four months.
What sorts of things can I expect to see?
It depends on the time of year and what might be visible. You may see the craters in the moon, one or more planets, a globular cluster, a double star, a galaxy, or a planetary nebula. There’s a whole universe of objects out there!
Will I have to wait in a long line to spend 10 seconds looking through a telescope?
No. We have multiple stations for viewing and learning about the night sky. Our stations include naked-eye observation and constellation lore, astronomical binoculars, 8-inch telescopes (each pointing to a different object), and the 20-inch Gilbert telescope. You will have time to savor the view and ask questions of the docents.
How long do programs last?
Some learning and viewing activities are free flow, while others begin at scheduled times. Your experience may last between 45 minutes to two hours depending on how and where you choose to spend your time.
Is there an age limit for who can come?
Not at all! Parents are the best judges of how long their children can be out at night. Viewing through the Gilbert telescope does require climbing some stairs in the dark, but we have volunteers who will help you up and down. Occasionally, our programs also include a planet walk of about 500 feet to the observatory. We usually rotate monthly through different planet walks on evenings when the stars are obscured. If you are unable to make this walk, special arrangements can be made when you arrive.
What rules do I need to be aware of at the observatory?
  • Don’t touch anything unless you are told it’s OK.
  • Children should not be left unsupervised. If you or your children are responsible for damaging equipment, you will be asked to donate toward its repair/replacement, and you will be asked to leave the event.
  • Don’t bring white-light flashlights, as they ruin everyone’s night vision. We have red lights that provide visibility but still preserve your eye’s dark adaptation.
How can I arrange for my scout troop, classroom, private school, home schoolers, etc., to have a private viewing at the observatory?
We have limited availability for private viewing sessions. Email [email protected] to ask if we can accommodate your group.
My question isn't included above.
Please send an email to [email protected].
Looking for more information on quasars, red shifts, black holes, gamma bursts, quarks, comets, or dark matter? Interested in seeing how the New Horizons mission to Pluto is faring? Want to find an image of a supernova or a binary star system?

Then check out the links below:

Useful Tools
Solar System
  • The Nine Planets
    A great source of general information about the solar system (and yes, they know there are only eight planets).
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Solar System
    More detailed information about the solar system.
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Photojournal
    Forty years of NASA images of the planets — including Earth!
  • Soviet Space Image Catalog
    The history of Soviet planetary and lunar probes has been neglected in the West, and the pictures returned from these missions are difficult to find. This catalog brings together most of the available images from the moon, Mars, and Venus.
  • Astronomy Workshop
    Various tools and widgets to help conceptualize aspects of astronomy and the solar system.
  • NASA: Eclipse
    A wealth of information about past and future eclipses, both solar and lunar.
  • The Planetary Society
    This advocacy nonprofit group updates its members with the latest space news and research, and its site is full of great information even for non-members.
Terrestrial Planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars
Jovian Planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune
Other Solar System Objects: Pluto, KBOs, Asteroids, Earth's Moon
Images of the Sky
  • Astronomy Picture of the Day
    This site collects photos and tidbits of information from across the universe.
  • James Webb Space Telescope
    The James Webb Space Telescope is an infrared observatory that will expand on the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope. The longer wavelengths observed by Webb allow us to see further back in time and enable us to see into the dust clouds where stars and planetary systems form.
  • Hubble Space Telescope
    The Hubble Space Telescope is perhaps the most productive scientific instrument of all time. Most of the images are in the visible light region, or close to it.
  • The World At Night (TWAN)
    The World At Night is a project to assemble photographs of the world’s most beautiful and historic sites set against backdrops of stars, planets, and celestial events. The title of the article in Sky & Telescope Magazine describing the site says it quite well: Earth and Sky United.
  • The Galaxy Catalog
    One hundred thirteen nearby galaxies are shown here, along with the process of constructing images from photos taken through different filters.
  • Two Micron All-Sky Survey
    These are ground-based infrared pictures of almost the entire sky, including plenty of images of regions obscured in visible light.
  • Chandra X-Ray Observatory
    X-rays are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, so the only way to see them is from a space-based observatory. The objects visible in X-ray wavelengths are very hot.
The Sun
Stellar Evolution, Galaxies, and Cosmology
  • Hubble Ultra Deep Field Viewer
    A “deep” image in astronomy is one where we can see the very dimmest and most distant objects. This is a mosaic of 800 Hubble images, with an effective exposure time of 11 1/2 days. The area of sky this covers looks blank and empty without these long exposures.
  • Galaxies
    Learn more about galaxies, their features, and specific ones we’ve identified.
  • The CfA Redshift Survey
    The CfA (Center for Astrophysics) survey of how the galaxies are distributed in space was one of the first.
  • Cosmology: The Study of the Universe
    This NASA site explains theories involving the makeup of the universe, like the Big Bang Theory.
  • Ned Wright’s Cosmology Tutorial
    More information on cosmology from a UCLA professor.
Support the ongoing needs of the Belk Astronomical Observatory by making a tax-deductible donation to the Neal G. and Jane C. Sumerlin Observatory Support Fund.

For additional information on how you can support the observatory, please contact Michael Bonnette.

Please contact Crystal Moorman ’09 for questions about the Belk Astronomical Observatory.