Welcome to the Detroit Observatory, where Michigan’s History is Written in the Stars

Upcoming Events

Apr. 19, 2024

Friday / 12:00 PM

Creating Michigan: A Walking Tour of Key Moments in U-M’s Early History

Apr. 19, 2024

Friday / 2:30 PM

The Origins of the Law Quadrangle: A Walking Tour

Apr. 19, 2024

Friday / 8:30 PM

Astronomy Night

Plan to See
the Stars

The Observatory is open for walk-ins every Friday from noon to 5pm and will have public events Friday evenings and some Thursdays. Please check our calendar on the Visit page.

Check our calendar for details! Advanced registration is required for most events.

Keep Exploring

Rediscover the Detroit
Observatory

Take a virtual tour of this newly reimagined, one-of-a-kind place, where the spirit of science and discovery link the past and present.

Fitz Refracting Telescope

When it was installed in 1857, the Fitz telescope was the third-largest refracting telescope in the world. More than 20 asteroids and 3 comets were discovered by astronomers looking through its lens. Today, visitors can still see the stars through this working instrument.

Meridian Circle Telescope

Built in 1854, this telescope’s purpose was measuring with extreme precision the position of stars and other celestial bodies. It was designed for research and as a time-setting tool for business and railroad stations throughout the state. It was the most cutting-edge technology for its time.

Are You Interested in Helping Detroit Observatory Visitors Explore the Sky and Discover the Past?

Would you like to give history tours of the Detroit Observatory or of the University of Michigan campus? Help educate visitors using Observatory exhibits and facilities? Develop and mount exhibits on astronomy, other sciences, the history of U-M, and more?

A docent is a person who acts as an educator and guide at a museum or, in this case, an historic observatory. Their job is to help visitors have the best experience they can.

There are two kinds of docents at the Detroit Observatory: Astronomy Docents, who help with telescope operation and astronomy presentations, and U-M History docents, who help with history tours, presentations, and exhibits. Our docents will receive extensive training relevant to their responsibilities., Prior experience in operating telescopes, giving tours, or understanding U-M history is not necessary.

We do not have docent positions open at this time, but please check back because we expect to do more hiring in the future.

At a Glance

Quick facts about the Detroit Observatory

“The place to study astronomy”

In March 1857, young Cleveland Abbe wrote to astronomers around the country, asking where he should study. The overwhelming answer: the observatory in Ann Arbor. After his time at the Detroit Observatory, Abbe went on to head the National Weather Bureau and to co-found the National Geographic Society.

Student transit I

In 1878, a small observatory was constructed 100 feet southeast of the Detroit Observatory, in anticipation of observing the transit of Mercury across the Sun, which occurred on May 8 of that year. This observatory was responsive to a program of the federal government to observe the transit and was temporarily made a U.S. Government Station.

James Craig Watson medal

As a man devoted to astronomy, James Craig Watson left the majority of his estate to the National Academy of Sciences after his passing. These resources were used to establish an award for outstanding contributions to astronomical science. The first of these prestigious James Craig Watson Medals, ironically, went to one of Watson’s chief rivals Benjamin Apthorp Gould in 1887. Thirty-eight awards later, it was awarded to Lisa Kewley for her study of galaxy collisions, cosmic chemical abundances, and the star-formation history of galaxies.

19th-century virtual reality

In the late 19th-century, stereographs were not only a tool for education in geography, astronomy, and other sciences but also a very popular form of entertainment. These stereoscopic slides gave a 3D effect when viewed through a handheld stereoscope, providing a plethora of new perspectives. This stereograph of the Meridian Circle Telescope at the Detroit Observatory was probably taken in the 1890s.

Student transit II

After observation of the transit of Mercury in 1878, the observatory grounds were returned to University control. Previously, this land had served as a U.S. Government Station. Upon the grounds being returned, the government provided the transit telescope to the observatory and it was remodeled as a student observatory. This was much to the delight of students, who had previously complained about the lack of adequate telescope access. The transit telescope has been on display since the Detroit Observatory’s reopening.

National recognition of the Detroit Observatory

On May 7, 1859, Frank Leslie’s Weekly magazine listed the Detroit Observatory as one of three leading observatories in the U.S., commenting “within the same space of time, no one of the three has accomplished more [than the Detroit Observatory].”

The Fitz Refractor gets a new tube

The original tube of the Fitz telescope, as delivered in 1857, was constructed of pine wood with a mahogany veneer. In 1907, the wooden tube was replaced with a steel tube, which provided the increased rigidity that the newer technologies of astrophotography and spectroscopy required. The photo here was taken inside one of these steel tubes. Although rumors persisted for many years that the old wooden tube was stored in a dormitory basement, it was never found.

2019 cistern discovery

In 2019, construction crews excavating for the Observatory’s addition discovered a forgotten cistern on the south side of the building. The cistern — 10 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep — contained 4000 gallons of water that had to be pumped out and trucked off site. The construction date of the cistern and what was connected to it remain unknown.

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Enjoy refreshments, music, socializing, historic telescopes, and 70s themed programming in the historic observatory. Night sky observation will occur if the weather permits.

70s attire (1870s and 1970s) encouraged! Best outfits may win a chance for a private tour of the observatory for 10 guests, including telescope observing!
... See MoreSee Less

Enjoy refreshments, music, socializing, historic telescopes, and 70s themed programming in the historic observatory. Night sky observation will occur if the weather permits.

70s attire (1870s and 1970s) encouraged! Best outfits may win a chance for a private tour of the observatory for 10 guests, including telescope observing!

Happy (late) April Fools!!

To celebrate the many strange happenings throughout astronomical history, we will be presenting a series of short talks designed to test the limits of your history and astronomy knowledge. Each talk could be about something true, something wrong, or...something fake? Confused, yet? We certainly are!

Yes, we know April 4 is not actually on April Fools Day, but you'd be a fool not to check out these fantastic talks!

Talks will begin at 7PM and are followed by tours (these are true, we promise) of the historic observatory and telescope observing. Telescope observing depends on the weather.

Registration can be found here: www.eventbrite.com/e/astronomy-april-fools-tickets-871217273317?aff=oddtdtcreator
... See MoreSee Less

Happy (late) April Fools!! 

To celebrate the many strange happenings throughout astronomical history, we will be presenting a series of short talks designed to test the limits of your history and astronomy knowledge. Each talk could be about something true, something wrong, or...something fake? Confused, yet? We certainly are!

Yes, we know April 4 is not actually on April Fools Day, but youd be a fool not to check out these fantastic talks!

Talks will begin at 7PM and are followed by tours (these are true, we promise) of the historic observatory and telescope observing. Telescope observing depends on the weather.

Registration can be found here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/astronomy-april-fools-tickets-871217273317?aff=oddtdtcreator

Come join us for our next Astronomy Night this Friday at 8:30pm! 🌔🌧☀️

This Astronomy Night will feature a special talk by one of our student docents, Sara DeSmet!

Did you know that the Detroit Observatory didn't stop working on cloudy days? A rainy day can be a nuisance when you're trying to observe the cosmos, but that didn't stop our astronomers! In the 1880's the Detroit Observatory became a hotbed for meteorological research, with staff and instruments dedicated to observing and recording the daily weather patterns of Ann Arbor.

The talk is about 20 minutes and begins at 8:30PM, and will be followed by tours through the historic Detroit Observatory. If weather permits, night sky observing through the historic Fitz Telescope is included.

Talk and Tours begin at 8:30PM. You may register for one or both!
www.eventbrite.com/e/astronomy-night-w-feature-talk-tickets-862432397517?aff=oddtdtcreator
... See MoreSee Less

Come join us for our next Astronomy Night this Friday at 8:30pm! 🌔🌧☀️

This Astronomy Night will feature a special talk by one of our student docents, Sara DeSmet!

Did you know that the Detroit Observatory didnt stop working on cloudy days? A rainy day can be a nuisance when youre trying to observe the cosmos, but that didnt stop our astronomers! In the 1880s the Detroit Observatory became a hotbed for meteorological research, with staff and instruments dedicated to observing and recording the daily weather patterns of Ann Arbor.

The talk is about 20 minutes and begins at 8:30PM, and will be followed by tours through the historic Detroit Observatory. If weather permits, night sky observing through the historic Fitz Telescope is included.

Talk and Tours begin at 8:30PM. You may register for one or both!
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/astronomy-night-w-feature-talk-tickets-862432397517?aff=oddtdtcreator
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