The 10 Coolest College Observatories
Unless you’re an astronomy or astrophysics major, you probably didn’t choose a school based on whether or not it had a cool observatory. Yet even if you don’t spend your nights staring at the stars for your coursework, having one on campus, or affiliated with your school, can be a great asset for any student who has an interest in learning more about the cosmos.
We’ve put together a list of some of the most beautiful, powerful and historic college observatories out there, but if your school’s observatory doesn’t appear, don’t fret: the list is by no means comprehensive. On it, students will find a variety of observatories, some located on college campuses and others in remote locations where the view of the night sky is a little clearer. What all of them have in common, however, is that you don’t have to be an astronomy major to appreciate just how cool they are and what they may be able to teach us about our solar system and the mysterious universe beyond it.
- W. M. Keck Observatory, Caltech and University of California: Located on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii, this observatory boasts two of the largest telescopes in the world, each with lens 33 feet in diameter. While not on the campus of Caltech or U of C, the observatory could still be worth a visit for students interested in astronomy, and not just for its proximity to the beaches of this tropical paradise. Keck has some of the most cutting-edge tools in the world, being used to research and explore the outer reaches of our galaxy, and attracts leading scientists from both colleges and organizations like NASA.
- Atacama Observatory, University of Tokyo: The University of Tokyo started this project in the Atacama desert of Chile in 2008, and some of the main telescopes that will be located there are still under construction. Today, this observatory is the highest in the world, sitting at 1900 feet. This elevation combined with the remote location will undoubtedly make it an impressive place to look at the night sky. So far, the school has completed construction on a pilot telescope, which can receive both visible and infrared light and will serve as a model for the much larger one that will eventually be built at the site. While far from both American and Japanese campuses, the observatory is impressive nonetheless, and once it is completed will likely draw in researchers from around the globe.
- Harvard College Observatory, Harvard University: Founded in 1839, Harvard College Observatory has a long and storied history of work in the field of astronomy. It is home to a once-spectacular telescope called the “Great Refractor,” which – at 15 inches – was the largest telescope in the United States when it was built in 1847 — a record that it held for 20 years! Students can not only visit this historic telescope, but also take a look at over 500,000 astronomical plates taken during the early years of the observatory’s operation, including beautiful images of the moon and stars. Today, the building is still in use, even if the Great Refractor isn’t, with researchers from Harvard and the Smithsonian still taking advantage of its many (now updated!) resources.
- Capilla Peak Observatory, University of New Mexico: You don’t have to be an astronomy student to take advantage of this observatory; it’s open every Friday night to the public and students alike. Situated on the mountains of the north campus, the observatory operates a 24-inch optical telescope that serves as one of many homes to the school’s astrophysics and astronomy researchers. The iconic observatory domes sit atop traditional pink-stuccoed buildings helping it fit in with the surrounding architecture and landscape of New Mexico. The campus observatory is also home to several other smaller telescopes, and students can visit to take in an eclipse or just learn more about the night sky.
- Vassar College Observatory, Vassar College: Near the eastern edge of Vassar’s campus, this observatory is not only beautiful, but also its oldest building – perhaps alluding to the important role astronomy would play in the university’s history. The first director of the observatory was Maria Mitchell, the first widely-known woman astronomer in the United States. Mitchell spent her time there during the late 19th century observing planets and satellites and encouraging students to make use of the observatory as much as possible. Her successor, Mary Whitney, was also an early female astronomer and made many discoveries related to comets. Today, the building is no longer used to plumb the skies for clues to the history of the universe, as a new observatory has been built for Vassar’s current astronomy students. It understandably houses a much larger and more impressive telescope. While the building is now offices and classrooms, students can still visit and learn about the pioneering women who worked there.
- Steward Observatory, University of Arizona: Few places are as good for observing the night sky as deserts. Unpopulated and unlit, they provide some of the best views of the vast expanse outside of our planet. The Steward Observatory is just a part of the many owned and operated by the University of Arizona. Students in astronomy may also work at Kitt Peak, Mount Hopkins or Mount Lemmon. Employing over 300 astronomers, grad students and support staff, the observatory is one of the biggest seats of astronomical research in the United States. Current research is being done into large mirror production, building a giant Magellan Telescope and using infrared observation. The observatory has a long history as well. Founded in 1916, Steward Observatory was used to take some of the first images of Pluto and Charon and produced high-resolution maps of the moon’s surface for NASA.
- Yerkes Observatory, University of Chicago: If you’re looking for amazing architecture and a scenic setting when it comes to an observatory (not to mention a high-powered telescope– the largest ever built for scientific research) then this Wisconsin landmark has it all. Established in 1897 on the banks of Lake Geneva in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, the observatory was the main seat of the University of Chicago’s astronomy department for nearly seven decades. Today, it plays a bigger role in educating the community about astronomy than it does in cutting-edge research, but there are still astronomers and engineers working, teaching and making discoveries in the building. The observatory is important for more than just its architecture, however. It was one of the first research institutions in the United States to think about astronomy outside of just gazes through telescopes, incorporating equipment and research in physics and chemistry as well.
- Hopkins Observatory, Williams College: This campus observatory is about as historical as it gets in the United States. Built in 1838, it is the oldest observatory known to exist in America. Moved several times during its lifetime, it now houses a museum and planetarium in addition to the famous telescope built by the firm of Alvan Clark. This was Clark’s first professional commission, but would not be his last, as he would go on to construct the record breaking telescope housed at Yerkes. Not everything at Hopkins is wrapped up in the past, however, and students are still using the space, with more modern equipment doing everything from tracking eclipses to studying planetary nebulae.
- Palomar Observatory, California Institute of Technology: Located in San Diego, this observatory is a world-class center of astronomical research. It houses five different telescopes used to conduct a wide range of research projects by faculty and students. This includes large, high-tech telescopes as well as the school’s first one built in 1936, which is no longer active. Numerous discoveries have been made here, including the existence of quasars, a better understanding of intergalactic clouds and the location of thousands of asteroids. The observatory is also a great work of Art Deco architecture, blending the needs of the observatory with careful and beautiful planning by designer Russell E. Porter, leading to it being nicknamed the “Cathedral of Astronomy.”
- Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory, UMass, Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges: Shared by five different colleges, this amazing radio telescope lies on a peninsula in the Quabbin Reservoir. It uses antennae to search for low frequency emissions given off by stars, and the labs were key in the discovery of the pulsar system earning Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics. Not as many universities have telescopes of this nature, and few have one that has contributed so much information to our understanding of the Milky Way and the phenomena within it. The observatory could see some major changes in the coming years, with plans to replace the current 14-meter telescope with an impressive 50-meter giant that will allow researchers to better study the formation of our galaxy.