I will admit for all my love of space and science, we’ve never been to a proper observatory before. We’ve been to planetariums and looked through telescopes at the heavens, but had never been to an actual observatory.
It was a struggle for me not to rush out the door when we found out that the Allegheny Observatory was only four miles north of our apartment and offered tours. An observatory in a city that keeps its lights on all night and is known for its pollution? But, I guess when this perch to look at the heavens was founded in 1859 light pollution wasn’t really a problem. The observatory started when the Allegheny Telescope Association purchased a 13-inch refracting telescope in 1861. It was delivered to the observatory in November and became one of the most popular forms of entertainment for the observatory members. The observatory was donated to the University of Western Pennsylvania (which later became the University of Pittsburgh) in 1867, and that is when its academic life began under the stewardship of Astrophysics Professor S.P. Langely. The later addition of a 30-inch telescope in 1912 that measured 47 feet long and was designed for photography gave scientists the chance to accurately record the planets and the night sky, giving us a far better understanding of the size and scale of the universe.
Knowing Amanda’s love for all things space-related, I decided to surprise her with a tour of the observatory on her birthday. The tour began in a cool, chair-filled lecture room with information about the observatory’s history and its telescopes. It continued down a corridor that runs perfectly east to west down the center of the building to a large case holding the first lens for the 30-inch telescope (pictured above). Our guide told us a French glass-making company actually went bankrupt attempting to sell the observatory a lens. A German company stepped in and delivered glass that met the observatory’s strict standards on its very first try.
After a quick walk through a hallway that serves as laboratory space, we got to see the 30-inch telescope pictured above. We got to see how it moves, how the dome slides open, and how the floor — suspended on an intricate pulley system — raises and lowers to allow astronomers to look across the entire night sky without being forced to climb ladders in the dark (which has led to deadly accidents in the past).
The last stop on our tour was the most spectacular. The room was like a scaled-down version of the one holding the 30-inch telescope (minus the fancy moving floor). The 13-inch refracting telescope pointed toward the southern sky, where we could see a bright white planet even with the naked eye. Looking through the telescope, we could see four of its moons, its bands and great red storm. We were looking at Jupiter. What an exciting prelude to NASA’s Juno mission, which arrives at Jupiter Monday!
Tours and Lectures
The tours of the observatory are free and are held Thursday nights between April and August and Friday nights between April and November 1st. You need to be a bit of a night owl since the tours don’t start until 8 p.m., because you need the sun to be setting before you can see anything, and end around 10 p.m. You will get a chance to learn about the history of the institution and get a look at the 30-inch telescope and then get hands-on with the 13-inch refracting telescope to get a up-close look at whatever celestial objects are visible in the sky. The tours book up early so you need to call 412-321-2400 to reserve a spot.
If you want to get even more academic, every third Friday of the month (except December) you can attend a public lecture. The lecture starts at 7 p.m. with refreshments then a lecture on the stars from 7:30 to 8:30. You get a tour of the observatory afterwards. You’ll also need to book early for these events and if you’ve gone to one already you are put at the back of the line and wait listed. If you want to see the stars and get a good look at our scientific and astronomical pasts the Allegheny Observatory is a perfect way to spend an evening.