Seeing stars: seven amazing observatories that you can actually visit

In July 2016, NASA achieved ‘the hardest thing’ it’s ever done, when it put a space probe into orbit around Jupiter – our solar system’s largest planet. Crossing a distance of 1.8 billion miles at an unimaginable speed of 150,000 miles per hour, it took the aptly named Juno (the mythological wife of Jupiter) five years to reach her gaseous match. Her mission? To find out what lies within her husband’s heart – the answer could provide us with vital information as to how our solar system was created.

Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii. Image: iStock/voshadhi

With a huge universal mystery closer to being solved than ever before, we got to thinking about our own relationship with the sky above us. Star gazing doesn’t have to be a privilege reserved for scientists and astronomers. Some of the world’s leading observatories are open to the public, giving us all a chance to experience the utter awesomeness of the deep night sky. The next time you travel, you might find yourself near one of these unbeatable star-gazing spots, so don’t miss the opportunity to visit!

Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii

Eleven countries operate from Mauna Kea Observatory, which is set a heady 4,260 metres above sea level on a dormant volcano, affording it clear skies nearly all year round. It’s the world’s largest astronomical observatory, with a light-gathering power that’s sixty times greater than that of the Hubble Space Telescope. The Visitor Information Station is located at the 2,800-metre level of the “White Mountain” and holds free star-gazing events every night of the year from 6-9pm. It is possible to visit the summit, where all 13 working telescopes reside, but only by day, and with the right all-terrain vehicle and equipment. Hiking to the summit is also possible – the high-altitude round-trip is not for the faint-hearted, and takes an average of eight hours.

South African Astronomical Observatory, Sutherland. Image: iStock/Sproetniek

South African Astronomical Observatory, Sutherland

Situated in South Africa’s Karoo semi-desert, a four and a half-hour drive northeast of Cape Town, the South African Astronomical Observatory occupies a spot 1,800 metres above sea level and is home to the South African Large Telescope – or SALT. It’s the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and one of the world’s biggest, allowing it to detect objects that are up to a billion times too small to be seen with eyes alone. Guests can explore the facility during the day with either a guided or self-guided tour, both of which include SALT. Night tours incorporate viewings through the two visitors’ telescopes in the visitor centre but, when darkness falls, public access to SALT and the plateau it sits on is prohibited, as car lights would inhibit viewing.

Kielder Observatory, Northumberland

You’ll find the Kielder Observatory amidst the Nordic-like, forested landscape of rural Northumberland, set under the third largest protected Dark Sky in the world – some of the darkest skies in Europe. An international competition was held to determine the observatory’s final design, with a brief that called for the building to complement the Kielder land and the sky scape. The winner was Charles Barclay architects from London, who submitted a modern, boxy structure that’s spread along a “land pier”, with two rotating tops. Visitors can look through the telescopes at night time by booking onto one of the regular evening events, which include night sky safaris, deep sky observations and full moon parties.

Griffith Observatory, California. Image: iStock/f11photo

Griffith Observatory, California

The Griffith Observatory in California was constructed as a public works project over the Depression era and, since then, has been open to the public free of charge. Since 1935, visitors have peered through the historic instruments, with Zeiss telescope claiming the crown as the most looked-through in human history! Public Star Parties are held each month, and the facility is home to both the 290-seat Samuel Oschin Planetarium and the 190-seat Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theatre, which offers regular film screenings, science-based demonstrations and lectures. As well as unbeatable views into the cosmos, the observatory’s hilltop location affords it a fantastic panorama over Los Angeles, including the iconic Hollywood sign – a draw for star enthusiasts of a more earthly kind.

Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, Canary Islands

At an elevation of almost 2,400 metres, the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory is perched on the edge of the Caldera de Taburiente on the Canary Island of La Palma, Spain. The astronomical quality here offers some of the world’s finest and the whole of the Northern Celestial Hemisphere and part of the Southern can be viewed from the observatory’s extensive fleet of instruments. Spain are so proud of their prime astronomical conditions that they protect it by law, regulating light pollution, radioelectrical and atmospheric pollution, and even aviation routes through ‘The Sky Law’. Over a 90-minute day-time visit, the public are shown the interior of one of the telescopes and given a full explanation of how it works.

Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona. Image: iStock/groveb

Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona

Forming part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Kitt Peak National Observatory sits 2,000 metres above sea level on Arizona’s Quinlan Mountains. As far as observatories go, it might not be considered big, but it is clever, with 22 optical telescopes and two radio telescopes – the largest collection in the world. During the daytime, visitors can use the two solar telescopes to observe the sun and, once darkness falls, guests can gaze at the stars using one of the three research-grade, state-of-the-art Ritchey-Chrétien telescopes that are open to the public. The observatory also hosts a range of regular and one-off events, such as moon tours, binocular stargazing and a meteor observation sessions.

La Silla Observatory, Chile

La Silla Observatory sits at an altitude of 2,400 metres in the Chilean Atacama Desert, 600 kilometres north of Santiago. Its remote location has one of the darkest night skies on earth, leaving it free from sources of light pollution. The European Southern Observatory (EOS) has managed the facility since the 1960s and, today, operates two of the world’s most productive four-metre class telescopes, amongst others. La Silla is also the home to the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) – the world’s leading instrument for spotting extrasolar planets. Free guided tours operate each Saturday, for which the public can register to attend online. The tour starts in the visitor centre, before taking in HARPS and the New Technology Telescope – the first telescope in the world to have a computer-controlled main mirror.

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One Comment

  1. Rupal Kakkad says:

    Do you know if the tour at La Silla Observatory in Chile allows visitors to look through the telescopes? Thanks!

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