Is there a place to stargaze on Penn’s campus?

Dear Benny:
I’ve been told that someplace on campus there is an observatory used for stargazing. If this is true, I’d like to know what sort of equipment it has. Also, can anyone visit?
—Star Struck

Dear Star Struck:
The observatory you have heard about is located on the rooftop of the David Rittenhouse Laboratory building, which houses the Department of Physics and Astronomy. It has existed since the 1950s, but it is currently used strictly for teaching purposes, not for research.

Its director, Simon Dicker, says each semester, about 200 students enrolled in courses such as Astro 1 and Astro 250 use the observatory to learn the basics of astronomy.
The observatory’s original equipment—including an eight-inch refracting telescope—has been updated. Today, the observatory’s two main telescopes are permanently mounted 10-inch Meade LX200s. But, Dicker adds, there are also a few portable instruments students can use to study the heavens.

While light pollution is sometimes a problem, students use the telescopes to measure the distance from Earth to particular planets or to star clusters, Dicker says. Or sometimes students estimate the height of mountains on the moon. Because the telescopes are equipped with digital cameras, students are also able to take pictures of fainter objects, which often include  Pluto and the circle of gas known as the Ring Nebula.

While the observatory is not regularly open to visitors, Dicker says he often welcomes school groups from the community and sometimes hosts public viewing nights. The next public gathering will be in late April, in conjunction with the Philadelphia Science Festival. Participants will get a chance to look at the moon, Mars and Saturn through one of the telescopes and will hear talks by members of the Physics and Astronomy Department. Times and exact dates have not yet been finalized.

Originally published on December 15, 2011