The Top 3 Public Observatories on Earth
Written by Colin Devroe · 27 April 2014
Each Spring my nephew Ethan and I go to the public observatory nearest us. We have a ball. He and I both look forward to it each year. It is our thing. We are given the opportunity — for free — to spend the evening gazing upon planets, nebulae, quasars, pulsars, galaxies, and star clusters.
Before each evening’s viewing session is a short presentation on something relevant happening in Space at the time. Some of the presentations have been just fascinating. In 2012, when the Transit of Venus was right around the corner, they provided an amazing presentation on the scientific value of the transit and how astronomers of times past tried to use it as a way to measure the Astronomical Unit.
BTW, the next transit isn’t until 2117 so if you missed it two years ago then you’ve probably missed your chance. Unless you live to be over 120. Total bummer.
It is all so fascinating and riveting and I look forward to keeping this tradition with my nephew for as long as he can stand to hang out with old Uncle Colin.
Below is a list of the top three public observatories around the world. Perhaps you can find one nearest you or even add a visit to one of the top three onto your next vacation’s itinerary. If you have even the slightest interest in Space I will personally guarantee that you will not regret it.
Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California.
Admission: Free (Planetarium costs a nominal fee.) Hours: Weekdays (Tuesday - Friday): Open 12:00 noon - 10:00 p.m - Weekends (Saturday - Sunday): Open 10:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.
The Griffith Observatory, which was opened in 1935, began from Colonel Griffith J. Griffith’s vision; “If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world!”. Located just north of Los Angeles in the beautiful Griffith Park, this is arguably one of the most accessible public observatories to the over 12 million residents of the city and surrounding areas.
Two historic telescopes, as well as several portable telescopes, are made available for public use. The Zeiss Telescope and the fairly rare Coelostat and Solar Telescopes.
The Zeiss Telescope, used primarily for the brightest objects in the night sky such as the moon and our neighboring planets, is the most used telescope in the world. Over 7,000,000 pairs of eyes have looked through this telescope to enjoy the objects of our solar system and beyond. A true testimony to the vision of Colonel Griffith.
The Coelostat and Solar Telescopes offer a much different experience than many of the observatories on our list. These are used to look closely at our nearest star, the Sun, and observe its sunspots and solar flares. All without blinding yourself like Galileo did (we know, we know, urban legend).
Did You Know? The Griffith Observatory was used as a shooting location for none other than MacGyver’s home in episode 1 of the now iconic TV series. Later on in the series he moved to a much more modest houseboat. Also, Amazon has a list of movies that featured the Griffith Observatory.
McDonald Observatory, near Fort Davis, Texas.
The McDonald Observatory, which also features daytime solar viewing and tours, home to a wide-array of telescopes. Including the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) which is one of the world‘s largest optical telescopes and is made up of made up of 91 hexagonal mirrors, giving it a honeycomb like appearance.
Some amazing research and work is being done at the McDonald Observatory each year. In fact, just last year, using the 2.1-meter Otto Struve Telescope some astronomers were able to discover pulsations from a dying star.
Did You Know? Though the Lott family’s YarCom® Inc. is the main contributory to the McDonald Observatory it has absolutely nothing to do with our own Yaron Schoen’s Twitter handle @yarcom. Though he would be willing to part with said username for bags and bags of cash.
Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Elqui Valley, Chile.
Public access: Saturdays in Summer and Winter. Limit 40 people per day. Reservations for permits call (051) 205 200.
At an elevation of roughly 7,100ft. above sea-level, Cerro Tololo is far from the highest observatory (which is The University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory Project, also in Chile, at a staggering 18,500ft.). However, CTIO is high enough to produce some of the best views of celestial objects available to the public.
Today it is common knowledge that the universe is expanding and that this expansion is, in fact, accelerating. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, this discovery came within the last 25 years. Much of the data collected to prove this fact was collected at CTIO by members of the High-z team which afforded them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011.
The largest telescope at CTIO is the Gemeni 8.1m. You know you have cool telescopes when each of them have their own web site, are in multiple locations on the planet, and take six countries to fund. If you want to see what this thing can do just look at some of the featured images on its web site.
Be sure to seek out the public observatory nearest you. You won’t regret it. Yaron and I promise.