Pitt’s Allegheny Observatory will hold open house

By Gwenn Barney

Students who want a good look at Uranus better hope for clear skies.

On Sept. 1, Pitt’s… Students who want a good look at Uranus better hope for clear skies.

On Sept. 30, Pitt’s Allegheny Observatory will hold its annual open house at which participants will have the opportunity to look through the observatory’s three powerful telescopes. Organizers meant for the open house to give guests the opportunity to experience the observatory’s historic telescopes and architecture in a more open and free environment than they can during the year.

“During a tour, you see about 50 percent of the observatory,” Allegheny Observatory director David Turnshek said. “At the open house, it’s closer to 70 percent, and the parts you don’t see probably aren’t worth seeing anyway.”

The observatory educates interested community members about the work astronomers conduct in the building.

“A lot of people say, ‘What are these people doing? What does their work do for me?’ Seeing the observatory makes clear that the kind of things we do are important from a human interest standpoint,” Turnshek said.

This work includes searching for planets and, in turn, life on these other planets.

“Modern scientists realize public outreach is a very important thing and that the best way to conduct this public outreach is to set aside times during the year when the public can have private tours for free,” Turnshek said.

Lou Coban, the observatory’s electronics specialist, said that for the event, groups of 50 to 60 people will first attend a 20-minute lecture on the observatory’s history and significance in the main lecture hall. Then tourists can move from room to room in the observatory, exploring the facility’s feature attractions, its telescopes, along the way.

“You sort of follow a self-guided path,” Coban said.

One telescope is housed under each of the observatory’s three domes. The 13-inch-lens Fitz-Clark Refractor telescope sits beneath the smallest dome, the 16-inch-lens Keeler Memorial Reflector takes up the medium-sized dome and the largest dome covers the sizable 30-inch-lens Thaw Refractor telescope.

Turnshek said the Thaw Refractor is the third-largest refracting telescope in the U.S., and he doesn’t believe the two larger ones are currently in use.

The open house marks the only time tour groups are permitted to use the Thaw Refractor telescope during the year. Coban and a team of Pitt students recently rewired the device to give it more range of movement. The adjustment will give guests access to more of the sky than ever before.

Guests won’t be able to physically look through the lens of Keeler Memorial Reflector telescope because its high positioning in the observatory was deemed too dangerous for the public. However, observatory staff plan to hook up the Keeler telescope to a 32-inch TV and demonstrate how the remote-control function of the telescope works.

The telescope is controlled through a computer program, and observatory staff will demonstrate how the push of a few keys on a laptop can adjust its direction and aperture.

“I always tell people, If you look at one of the planets like Jupiter or Saturn through the telescopes, we’ll have to tape your socks on because it will just knock your socks off,” Coban said.

In addition to the telescopes inside the observatory, members of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, who used to hold meetings in the observatory before moving them to the Carnegie Science Center, also plan to provide additional portable telescopes for guest use.

“Some of our members will set up telescopes outside the entrance to the observatory to give people the opportunity to view the sky during the evening portion of the program,” AAAP corresponding secretary John Mozer said.

Guests at the open house will also be able to browse some of the 110,000 photographic plates the observatory collected between 1914 and 1984.

The plates are photographic images recorded onto flat sheets of metal or glass. They were often used by astronomers in the 1800s to record images of their astronomical findings. Coban said he believes Pitt’s collection of photographic plates is one of the largest in the country.

Coban said that the open house is also an opportunity for those interested in architectural history to explore a century-old building. Built by architect Thorsten Billquist in the Classic Revival style between 1900 and 1912, the current observatory building holds status as a Pennsylvania historic landmark.

Allowing the public to use their telescopes is nothing new for the Allegheny Observatory staff. In fact, under the direction of astronomer and former Pitt Chancellor John Brashear, the observatory was built with public tours in mind.

Turnshek also said students might want to take the opportunity to visit the observatory for its historic nature — the building celebrates the 100th anniversary of its dedication next August — and to consider whether they might want to take a class there.

Today the observatory is primarily used for Pitt classes and research, but tours are routinely conducted on Fridays during the fall and spring semesters.

The observatory, which is about eight miles from campus and four miles north of Downtown, will be open to guests on Sept. 1 from 7 to10 p.m.

The event is free, but tickets must be reserved by calling the observatory. Coban said interested visitors have already claimed about a quarter of the 350 tickets available.

“Hopefully it will be a clear night,” Coban said. “Cloudy skies make it difficult to see distant planets and stars.”

(Editor’s Note: This article had the incorrect date listed for the open house. The article has been changed to reflect the correct date of the open house, Sept. 30.)