Clear skies bring star-gazing enjoyment to the Allegheny Observatory annual open house


Clear skies above two of the three telescope domes at the Allegheny Observatory on Oct. 1, when more than 300 people came to its annual open house. (Photo/Matthew Cichowicz)

Almost 400 light years away from Earth, Alberio appears as a single star of average brightness to the naked eye, but through the Fitz-Clark telescope at the Allegheny Observatory, the blue and yellow double star seems just out of arm’s reach.

Albireo was one of the many astronomical wonders that could be seen at the observatory’s annual open house on Oct. 1.

The open house had several stations throughout the observatory where members of the staff and other volunteers explained the history of the building, research efforts and the science of astronomy as it relates to the Allegheny Observatory.

Observatory historian Art Glaser opened the evening with a brief introduction to 151 years of history associated with the building. In 1859, a small group of wealthy citizens in Allegheny City considered the purchase of a telescope for recreational use. Eight years later, interest in using the telescope to look at the moon and the planets declined. They donated the telescope and observatory building to the Western University of Pennsylvania, which later became the University of Pittsburgh.

Glaser also explained the observatory’s current research efforts of locating and tracking extrasolar planets. The research is part of international collaborations to understand planet formation and search for other habitable planets.

Afterwards, the tour groups followed signs on the observatory walls that led upstairs to the dome containing the 149-year-old Fitz-Clark refractor telescope.

As visitors took turns looking through the telescope at Jupiter, the guides explained the history of the telescope, including the time the 13-inch lens was stolen, held for ransom and abandoned by the thieves in a motel garbage can.

In 1861, future director of the Allegheny Observatory James Keeler used the Fitz telescope to discover Saturn’s rings were particulate rather than solid. The telescope, later modified to become the Fitz-Clark telescope, once had the third largest lens in the country. Now, as the open house guide mentioned, it is the third largest lens in the observatory, behind the Thaw refractor and the Keeler Memorial reflector.  

After looking through the Fitz-Clark telescope, the tour groups passed through a long hallway containing the observatory’s computer laboratory, separated by glass windows. The hallway led to the observatory’s largest dome, fit for the 47-foot-tall Thaw refractor telescope. Most visitors were more than willing to get down on their knees and look through the telescope’s eye-piece at Albireo.

The next stops on the tour brought visitors back to the ground level, which contains the statue of the observatory’s founder, John Alfred Brashear. The elaborate clock room that served the observatory’s former purpose of obtaining accurate time is also on the first floor. By observing stars as they crossed the celestial meridian, the observatory sent uniform time by telegraph to many industries, especially the railroad.

The tour concluded in the lower levels of Allegheny Observatory. A brief trip downstairs led to the plate room which stores photographic records of stars, planets and other celestial bodies.

The last stop on the tour, the crypt, is a tiny dome-shaped room at the base of the Thaw refractor telescope. The ashes of Brashear, Keeler and members of the Keeler family are kept in the crypt to honor these individuals’ contributions to the Allegheny Observatory.

The event was open to the public, without charge, but attendees were required to reserve tickets in advance. Within 24 hours of availability, a month before the actual event, all of the tickets were claimed. A total of 341 people attended the open house.

Professor Dave Turnshek, the observatory’s current director, described its recent goals as primarily education and community outreach.

The annual open house, in conjunction with tours and lectures throughout the year, work to spread awareness of the observatory’s proud history and continuing efforts to advance research in astronomy.

Members of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh also set up their telescopes outside and made their private telescopes available to the public, adding stars such as M13 and M15 to the list of astronomical wonders to be seen on the mostly clear Pittsburgh night.

With the exception of slight cloud coverage around 9 p.m., the early autumn evening provided the ideal conditions for star-gazing. Members of the Allegheny Observatory exclaimed their delight with the clear night, mentioning that in the past, tours and events have been cancelled due to overcast skies.

The observatory offers tours throughout April and October. The building is closed to the public during winter months because the cold temperatures result in unpleasant conditions for using the telescopes in the open-air domes.

During the months of operation, the observatory brings in speakers from all over the country to discuss topics relevant to astronomers and the astronomically curious. Although there are individuals that regularly attend these events, new faces frequently find their way to the observatory, said Diane Turnshek, astronomer and instructor at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Allegheny Observatory’s timing of the open house coincided with more than clear skies. The following week, Oct. 4-10, was officially declared World Space Week by the United Nations General Assembly in 1999. Over 63 nations participate in the celebration to encourage education and information for government leaders and the public about space.

The Carnegie Science Center celebrated World Space Week with special events that included the Rangos Omnimax Theater screening of “Hubble,” a film chronicling the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, extended hours for the Buhl Observatory located on top of the Science Center and new astronomy exhibits geared toward providing hands-on interaction with the cosmos.

For more information about the University of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory visit or call 412-321-2400 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Matthew Cichowicz is a senior studying nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. He is interning with The Northside Chronicle during the fall semester.

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