Dearborn Observatory continues providing space to explore the stars more than 135 years later


Seeger Gray/Daily Senior Staffer

The Dearborn Observatory hosts free tours each Friday night, allowing visitors to view the stars through its telescope.

Jeremy Fredricks, Reporter

Northwestern community members can see the stars each week at the Dearborn Observatory, which remains a must-stop spot for star-gazers more than 135 years after it first opened.

“The first night we reopened from COVID, we had one visitor who said that his mission is to visit all the big observatories in the United States, and he had been wanting to come to Dearborn for a long time,” said astronomy and physics Prof. Michael Smutko, Dearborn Observatory director. 

The Dearborn telescope’s lens — the world’s largest in the 1860s — was originally built for the University of Mississippi, but moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

After being operated at the Old University of Chicago and the Chicago Astronomical Society, the telescope arrived at NU in 1887. 

The Dearborn Observatory moved to its current location with the same telescope in 1939 to make way for construction of the Technological Institute.

The telescope’s original lenses, created by astronomer Alvan Clark, are still in use today, Smutko said. He added that the lenses have lasted because they were made with a very durable glass. But, the original tube has been replaced.

“(Clark’s) optics are to astronomers sort of what stradivarius are to cellos and violins,” Smutko said. “A good lens is like a good violin: Be careful with it and it will last a very long time.”

For decades, the Dearborn Observatory has provided public tours. More than 1,500 people visit the observatory each year during free Friday night tours, according to Smutko. 

McCormick freshman Ryan Beam and his girlfriend Isabelle Cowan, a student at Barnard College, visited the observatory in January. 

Beam and Cowan had previously star-gazed on a trip to Sedona, Arizona but thought seeing the stars and planets through the telescope would provide a new perspective.

“We both liked astronomy, and I live in New York City,” Cowan said. “I don’t ever get the chance to see the sky in the way I could here.”

But, visitors to the observatory are not the only community members to frequent the location. 

Friday tours are staffed by undergraduate and graduate students, including Weinberg junior Noah Blaisdell.

Blaisdell said he enjoys working at the observatory, which represents a change of pace from his major: political science. 

“It’s been cool to have this as a hobby because it’s interesting to learn more about things I don’t usually learn about,” Blaisdell said.

Blaisdell began working at the observatory after taking Astronomy 101: Modern Cosmology with Smutko Winter Quarter 2022 to fulfill a distribution requirement. He said a typical Friday evening includes discussing the history of the telescope with visitors and demonstrating how the telescope and observatory function.

Smutko said the tours allow visitors to experience space — more than they would if they just looked at pictures online.

“Most of the Friday night visitors have never looked through a telescope before,” Smutko said. “When they see the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter or the red spot on Jupiter for the first time, many of them don’t believe it’s real. It’s always a real thrill to show people things like this that they’ve only read about.” 

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Twitter: @JSFredricks

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