Welcome to the
Detroit Observatory,

where Michigan’s History
is Written in the Stars

Plan to See the Stars

The Observatory is open on a walk-in basis on Fridays from 12 noon to 5 pm.  We also offer programs and open houses related to astronomy, the history of the University, and more Friday evening, most Thursday evenings, and occasionally at other times. Check our calendar for details!  Advanced registration is required for most events.

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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 12" refractor endview and open dome slit
[about this photo]

The 12" Fitz refractor in the dome. Photo by Shannon Murphy.

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.

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[about this photo]

The 6-inch Henry Walker Meridian Circle telescope, located in the east wing. In the foreground is the observer's bench.

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.

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Upcoming Events

  • Sep. 30, 2022

    Friday / 2:30 PM

    Spirits of Michigan’s Past: A Walking Tour of Forest Hill Cemetery

    details
  • Sep. 30, 2022

    Friday / 8:00 PM

    Astronomy Night Open House

    details

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

We have completed hiring our first cohort of docents, but we expect to have more openings in the future, so please check back!

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.

These are paid positions, and application is through the U-M Student Employment Website.

 

We have completed hiring our first cohort of docents, but we expect to have more openings in the future, so please check back!

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.

These are paid positions, and application is through the U-M Student Employment Website.

 

At a Glance

Quick facts about the Detroit Observatory

Central telescope pier

The Observatory’s larger of two telescopes stands on a central pier, designed to minimize vibrations. The pier, constructed of solid brick masonry, is submerged 15 feet below grade, rises to the dome 40 feet above ground level, and is 20 feet in diameter at its base. It is isolated from the ground and dome floors by a 1-inch gap.

Dome rotation

The Observatory dome originally ran on five cannonballs that rolled freely in a circular groove. Because nothing maintained the distance between the cannonballs, they would eventually clump together toward one side, making rotation impossible. When this happened, timbers were inserted into slots in the dome, the dome was “jacked up,” and the cannonballs redistributed. In 1890, the system was replaced with railroad-style wheels running on a track, as can be seen today.

Mary E. Byrd

Mary Byrd graduated from the University of Michigan in 1878. Although she did not study at the Observatory, she went on to become a prominent astronomer and a pioneer in astronomy education. For nearly twenty years, Byrd directed the observatory at Smith College. In this same time period, she published two widely used astronomy textbooks. In protest of the institution’s acceptance of donations from Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, she resigned from Smith College in 1907.

Fitz lens cell

The Fitz refractor’s objective lens (the lens at the large end of the telescope) is known as a doublet achromatic lens. It consists of two lenses, one concave and one convex. This combination of lenses helps to reduce the image distortions caused by the fact that light of different colors come into focus at different points; the concave lens corrects for these distortions made by the convex lens.

Director’s Residence

In 1868, a residence for the director and his family was built to the east of the Observatory. The residence was enlarged and updated in 1905. Beginning with James Craig Watson, seven directors and their families lived in the residence. In 1942, it became a residence for women students, in 1946, it was converted to apartments for faculty, and in 1954 it was torn down to make room for the expansion of Couzens Hall.

Moons of Mars

On August 12, 1877, Asaph Hall, Sr., an alumnus of the Detroit Observatory, discovered a moon of Mars known as Deimos while working at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Six days later, he discovered Mars’s second moon, Phobos. Before going on to become one of the nation’s leading astronomers, Hall had trained at the Detroit Observatory under Franz Brünnow.

Before Apollo

This image of the moon is from 1932, taken by amateur astronomers Charles and Robert McMath, who were formally affiliated with the University’s Observatory. Their movie of the moon was produced for public use by British Pathé Pictures, who claimed, “The moon appears exactly as it would were you speeding through space at 1,000 miles a minute – 300 miles above its airless and lifeless surface.” This movie, which can be found at https://youtu.be/PwGm4mIxiPg, helped the public understand the dynamic atmosphere of the sun.

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Meet our next featured docent, Sanil 🥳

As an astronomy docent, Sanil takes images with the Fitz Refractor telescope, curates outreach events, and gives tours of both telescopes during open houses and other events. As he is fascinated by the vastness and beauty of space, his favorite part of working at the Observatory is capturing and subsequently working with space images and seeing people’s reactions when they look through our telescopes.

With our programming picking up this fall, we’re excited to see the images Sanil takes and the events he helps create!
... See MoreSee Less

Meet our next featured docent, Sanil 🥳

As an astronomy docent, Sanil takes images with the Fitz Refractor telescope, curates outreach events, and gives tours of both telescopes during open houses and other events. As he is fascinated by the vastness and beauty of space, his favorite part of working at the Observatory is capturing and subsequently working with space images and seeing people’s reactions when they look through our telescopes. 

With our programming picking up this fall, we’re excited to see the images Sanil takes and the events he helps create!

An exciting change is being made at the Observatory! While we have previously been open on a registration-only basis, this past Friday we started having open hours — no registration necessary — from noon to 5 pm. Going forward, each Friday afternoon, we will offer tours, presentations, and observing on a walk-in basis 🥳 We’re looking forward to seeing you on Fridays! ... See MoreSee Less

An exciting change is being made at the Observatory! While we have previously been open on a registration-only basis, this past Friday we started having open hours — no registration necessary — from noon to 5 pm. Going forward, each Friday afternoon, we will offer tours, presentations, and observing on a walk-in basis 🥳 We’re looking forward to seeing you on Fridays!
1 month ago
Detroit Observatory

Up next in our docent features is Eva Chavez!

Eva’s work as a history docent at the Observatory is primarily focused on history through the lens of architecture, which she says is an often underrated aspect of the Observatory and its history. In her work at the Observatory, she has enjoyed getting to see the general “wackiness” of the University’s history. She cites the marriage between the Observatory's first director, Franz Brünnow, and Rebecca Tappan, the daughter of former University President Tappan, as an example of how the Observatory has played a role in the peculiarity of the University’s history.

Getting to talk about and sort through her work with coworkers and Observatory visitors is what Eva finds to be the most fulfilling part of her job at the Observatory. We’re looking forward to all the stories Eva’s research will highlight at the Observatory in the future!
... See MoreSee Less

Up next in our docent features is Eva Chavez!

Eva’s work as a history docent at the Observatory is primarily focused on history through the lens of architecture, which she says is an often underrated aspect of the Observatory and its history. In her work at the Observatory, she has enjoyed getting to see the general “wackiness” of the University’s history. She cites the marriage between the Observatorys first director, Franz Brünnow, and Rebecca Tappan, the daughter of former University President Tappan, as an example of how the Observatory has played a role in the peculiarity of the University’s history.

Getting to talk about and sort through her work with coworkers and Observatory visitors is what Eva finds to be the most fulfilling part of her job at the Observatory. We’re looking forward to all the stories Eva’s research will highlight at the Observatory in the future!