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30 Best College Planetariums and Observatories


Best PlanetariumsSpace is the final frontier and our colleges and universities are at the forefront of exploration! As we set out to put together our list of the 30 best college planetariums and observatories, we considered the following:

Observatory or Planetarium? A planetarium is a “sky theater” and a simulation of the night sky, while an observatory uses telescopes to look at the actual sky in that moment. Both are educational and fun to visit, and we chose not to limit our list to one or the other. Some of our featured facilities are both planetariums and observatories.

Equipment: Cutting-edge research needs top-of-the-line equipment, so we took into consideration the types of telescopes and other pieces used by these facilities.

Discoveries: Most of the planetariums and observatories are important research hubs, so we took into consideration what kinds of discoveries have been made at each.

Visitor Experience: Finally, we considered whether each planetarium or observatory was open to visitors. If so, we looked at what kinds of activities and other educational experiences are offered.

Allegheny Observatory

University of Pittsburgh

Open to the Public? Yes
It’s one of the premiere research institutions in the world. So it should come as no surprise that University of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory is included on our list of the best college planetariums and observatories. Although it’s frequently used by Pitt students for educational purposes, the observatory’s main focus is research — cutting edge research. Interested visitors are welcome to peek in on observations during a tour. Various illustrated lectures are also held throughout the year.

Apache Point

New Mexico State University

Open to the Public? No
Apache Point observatory is located near and completely managed by New Mexico State University. However, it’s actually owned by a consortium of American colleges and universities. This means some of the foremost minds in astronomy flock to Apache Point to take advantage of its four impressive telescopes. Each is state-of-the-art and ideal for deep-sky imaging. Some impressive research has happened within the domed walls of Apache Point, including the very first digital maps of The Milky Way and night sky.

Bradley Observatory

Agnes Scott College

Open to the Public? Yes
Opened in 1950, Bradley Observatory at Agnes Scott College is just as impressive technically as it is aesthetically. The observatory is listed on the National Register of Historical Places because of its Georgian-style architecture and its long history as a resource for researchers of all kinds. On the technical side, the observatory is home to the vintage 1930s Beck Telescope, once the largest in the region. Additional modern equipment is also available for students and researchers to use. Visitors interested in touring Bradley Observatory are welcome. Lectures and other public events are also held throughout the year.

Capilla Peak Observatory

University of New Mexico

Open to the Public? Yes
Capilla Peak Observatory is located on the outskirts of Albuquerque. It’s managed by the Department of Physics and Astronomy of nearby University of New Mexico. Though the observatory looks pretty standard from the outside, inside is a top-notch 14-inch Meade LX200GPS telescope which students and faculty use to conduct research. Visitors can see the wonder for themselves on one of Capilla Peak’s many scheduled “Friday public viewings.”

Chamberlin Observatory

University of Denver

Open to the Public? No, but does offer an occasional Public Night
There are some impressive planetariums and observatories on this list, but in terms of aesthetics, the 19th-century red sandstone Chamberlin Observatory knows no equal. Equipment-wise, the observatory is just as impressive. Students and faculty have access to a 20-inch telescope, one of the largest in the western United States. They’ve used it to discover dozens of new stars in the last century.

The Charles F. Hager Planetarium

San Francisco State University

Open to the Public? Yes
Though San Francisco State University’s Charles F. Hager Planetarium is best known as a planetarium, it’s also a working observatory and research hub. The planetarium itself is extremely popular amongst Bay Area locals and visitors to San Francisco. It remains one of the only planetariums to provide educational experiences free of charge. Visitors can take guided tours to see the facility’s many telescopes. They can also reserve a spot during one of the planetarium’s regularly scheduled star-gazing nights.

The Charles W. Brown Planetarium

Ball State University

Open to the Public? Yes
Ball State University is home to one of the top astronomy programs in the country, and much of that stellar reputation has to do with The Charles W. Brown Planetarium. It has five state-of-the-art telescopes, including a 16-inch Meade LX2000 which students use to make their own celestial discoveries. The planetarium is a fantastic resource for astronomy students and professors. Members of the public can take a tour of the planetarium with a knowledgeable guide, or take part in one of the many lectures or night sky observations that take place each year.

Class of 1951 Vassar College Observatory

Vassar College

Open to the Public? Yes
Funded by a generous donation from the Class of 1951, this observatory at Vassar College is all kinds of innovative. Nearly all of the facility’s exterior is constructed of low-thermal-weight aluminum that keeps the state-of-the-art 20- and 32-inch telescopes from overheating. Vassar students studying astronomy and physics can use the observatories for research purposes. The offices and classrooms, also located inside the building, make hands-on learning and teaching a breeze.

Dyer Observatory

Vanderbilt University

Open to the Public? Yes
Located just outside of Nashville and away from the city lights, Vanderbilt University’s Dyer Observatory has a long history as a top research facility. Several new stars have been discovered here over the last six decades. Many of Vanderbilt’s professors of astronomy and astrophysics have been published based on research conducted here. Dyer Observatory opens to the public for Open House Days and Telescope Nights, plus the occasional Meet the Astronomer event. Be warned that tickets for all sell out quickly.

Flandrau Observatory and Science Center

University of Arizona

Open to the Public? Yes
You won’t get too far past the cool “Moon-dial” clock outside the entrance before you realize University of Arizona’s Flandrau Observatory and Science Center is one of the best college planetariums in the country. It was completely renovated and reopened in 2012. Flandrau is home to several fascinating exhibits and a slew of state-of-the-art equipment, including a 16-inch reflecting telescope. Head to Flandrau during the evening, when the planetarium hosts free sky viewing hosted by highly skilled star gazers.

Fujitsu Planetarium

De Anza College

Open to the Public? Yes
A community college may not be what you think of when you think “great college planetariums!” De Anza College in Cupertino, California should be a clear exception. First of all, De Anza’s Fujitsu Planetarium is the largest college-affiliated planetarium on the West Coast. Secondly, this modern facility is state-of-the-art in every way. It acts as host to the college’s top-notch astronomy program. Check the calendar to take advantage of one of Fujitsu’s fun laser light shows, usually set to the music of a classic rock band. Or book it as a venue for your next special event.

Gheen’s Science Hall & Rausch Planetarium

University of Louisville

Open to the Public? Yes
University of Louisville’s Gheen’s Science Hall & Rausch Planetarium is chock-full of fun and fascinating space-themed activities for visitors of all ages. Visitors to the planetarium will experience a state-of-the-art multimedia projection system and a fascinating interactive star show set to rock  music. Additionally, visitors of all ages can delight in various exhibits including a 130-specimen Meteorite exhibit and a Star Ball exhibit.

Haleakala Observatory

University of Hawaii

Open to the Public? No, though the occasional public lecture is held
Perched atop a hill on the island of Maui is the Haleakala Observatory. Associated with University of Hawaii, this observatory is one of the most important in the nation. Astrophysicists from NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and other organizations have long used Haleakala’s state-of-the-art facility and uniquely reliable local climate to conduct groundbreaking experiments. Though the observatory is closed to the public, the nearby research center occasionally hosts public lectures and other special events.

Haystack Observatory

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Open to the Public? Yes
Some of the most exciting research having to do with astronomy and astrophysics is happening at MIT’s Haystack Observatory. Shaped like a planet itself, the observatory is chock-full of state-of-the-art equipment. Among other things, the equipment is used to study:

-the Milky Way

– the sun’s effect on the Earth

-activities of various stars

-the evolution of the universe

Students, faculty, and some independent researchers have access to this equipment, which includes a series of radio array telescopes and various antennas.

Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium

Butler University

Open to the Public? Yes
Uniquely, Butler University is home to a combined observatory and planetarium. This makes for an enhanced experience for Butler students and faculty, and an especially exciting experience for visitors.  Two major upgrades have taken place in the last couple of years (since 2015). First, the telescope recently underwent a $500,000 refurbishment to greatly improve its optics, operation, and remote research ability. Second, the planetarium has been upgraded with a fulldome digital projector which can give visitors a fully immersive 3D experience in addition to nicely rendering the night sky. Guests who visit the planetarium on weekends have the opportunity to peer through the telescope at the moon, Jupiter, and other celestial targets during the planetarium’s popular seasonal star shows.

Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium

Yale University

Open to the Public? Yes
It’s known as simply the Yale University Observatory. The Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium has an impressive history of star-gazing and celestial discovery dating back to 1830. Today, the facility boasts a 12-inch Meade telescope and a Grubb telescope refractor. Both of these are used by Yale University professors and students. The planetarium side of the facility is popular among local local residents and visitors to Yale. It hosts various public sky viewings throughout the week.

Lick Observatory

University of California, Santa Cruz

Open to the Public? Yes
As of 2013, a Santa Cruz-based group within the University of California system has managed the Lick Observatory. Located near San Jose, California, the Lick Observatory is an important research facility for astrophysics and astronomy students and faculty from the various UC campuses. Interestingly, the observatory has been the site of a slew of fascinating celestial findings over the years. These include the discovery of multiple moons of Jupiter, myriad extrasolar planets, and multiple different planet systems.

McDonald Observatory

University of Texas at Austin

Open to the Public? Yes
University of Texas at Austin boasts the impressive McDonald Observatory. Located about 450 miles outside of the city, McDonald Observatory consists of four impressive research telescopes. These include one of only four Robotic Optical Transient Sear Experiment telescopes located worldwide, as well as a 9.2m Hobby-Eberly telescope, the fourth largest optical telescope on the planet. McDonald Observatory hosts various exhibits, educational programs, and star parties open to the public.

Montgomery College Astronomical Observatory

Montgomery College

Open to the Public? Yes
There’s plenty to see in the Washington, D.C. area, but those interested in astronomy should definitely add a visit to the Montgomery College Astronomical Observatory to their itinerary. This state-of-the-art observatory in Rockville, Maryland boasts two 15-inch and three eight-inch Celestron telescopes. All sit directly under a sliding roof to ensure maximum visibility. Though students and faculty frequently use the observatory for educational purposes, the facility has an excellent public program. Visitors can heighten the experience of meteor showers and other star-gazing events by taking part in one of Montgomery’s many public nights.

Morehead Planetarium

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Open to the Public? Yes
University of North Carolina’s Morehead Planetarium has a long and impressive history. It’s an easy addition to our list of the best college planetariums. Opened in 1949, Morehead was one of the first planetariums in the United States, and the very first in the South. During the 1950s, Astronauts from the U.S. space program were sent to Morehead to study celestial navigation. These days, the state-of-the-art planetarium has replaced its classes for astronauts with classes for astronauts-to-be. It hosts unique summer science camps, science clubs, and various workshops for children of all ages.

Mount Graham International Observatory

University of Arizona

Open to the Public? Yes, but reservations are required
If you’re near Arizona’s Pinaleno Mountains on a weekend between May and October, you’ll definitely want to book a tour of Mount Graham International Observatory. Affiliated with University of Arizona, this impressive observatory acts as a research base for astronomers from all over the world. The observatory’s Large Binocular Telescope is uniquely capable of collecting deep-sky data. Three other telescopes are being used to study the Milky Way and other galaxies far, far away. If you book a guided tour, expect a fun walking lecture around the mountain, lunch near the summit of Mount Graham, and a rare peek at the telescopes.

Mount Laguna Observatory

San Diego State University

Open to the Public? Yes
San Diego State University’s Mount Laguna Observatory has been called one of the best places in the continental United States for “great star-gazing weather.” Besides Southern California’s enviable climate, the observatory boasts four impressive telescopes. It has a great relationship with the local community which follows various ordinances meant to restrict light after nightfall. A visitors’ center welcomes guests interested in a tour, while some nighttime star gazing is included on the observatory’s annual calendar.

Palomar Observatory

California Institute of Technology

Open to the Public? Yes
CalTech, one of the country’s premiere institutions for science and technology fields, owns and operates the Palomar Observatory. The observatory is set up so that students of all levels can assist with astronomy and physics research. The impressive buildings include classrooms, myriad research labs, and five different telescopes to ensure that students, faculty, and researchers have the technology needed to conduct their study of the sky. Palomar Observatory is open to the public nearly every day of the year, offering daytime tours and even the chance to observe research in action.

Prescott Observatory Complex

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Open to the Public? Yes, occasionally
It should come as no surprise that an observatory owned and operated by Embry-Riddle — one of the top institutions for all things astrophysics and astronomy — is on the list of the best college planetariums and observatories. Prescott Observatory Complex is an impressive array of state-of-the-art technology. It includes 12- and 14-inch optical and radio telescopes, plus a separate Radio Observatory specifically set up to identify the presence of certain objects throughout space. For the most part, the observatory complex is reserved for the many students and faculty involved in impressive research projects. Those interested in visiting the observatory should check the website for upcoming public events, including daytime tours, demonstrations, and sometimes a nighttime viewing.

Rosemary Hill Observatory

University of Florida

Open to the Public? No
Founded in 1967, the Rosemary Hill Observatory is a pride and joy of University of Florida. Located away from the city lights, the observatory consists of numerous research labs for students and faculty, high-tech connectivity throughout, and some top-of-the-line telescopes. In addition to guided tours around the facility, Rosemary Hill Observatory also hosts multiple observation nights for the public.

Space Science Center

Morehead State University

Open to the Public? Yes
There is no facility on our list quite like Morehead State University’s Space Science Center. It is both an observatory and a planetarium. The Space Science Center conducts super high-tech, cutting-edge research in nanosatellite technologies (think a satellite the size of a toaster) for NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, and various aerospace companies. Additionally, the Center runs a fantastic public program dedicated to educating the next generation of astronomers and astrophysicists. Various programs exist for students K-12. Laser shows and night sky tours are frequently held for interested guests.

U.S. Naval Academy Observatory

United States Naval Academy

Open to the Public? Yes
Managed by the U.S. Naval Academy, and closely associated with the Department of Defense, the U.S. Naval Academy Observatory is home to some exciting — though almost certainly classified — research. The observatory boasts some of the newest and best technological instruments of any observatory in the nation. It is, therefore, a go-to facility for some of the brightest minds in astronomy and astrophysics. Researchers at the observatory provide the U.S. Armed Forces with precise astronomical time, while other research done here has included the discovery of myriad stars and planets.

West Mountain Observatory

Brigham Young University

Open to the Public? Yes, occasionally
From the outside, West Mountain Observatory may not look as impressive as some of the other facilities on our list. But this BYU-owned observatory is a favorite work space for many traveling astronomical researchers and doctoral fellows. This is because West Mountain Observatory is located on top of a 6,960-foot mountain, meaning anyone peering through the observatory’s 12-, 20-, or 35-inch telescopes can be assured of zero light conflicts. The observatory is mostly used for academic research. However, it often opens to the public during meteor showers or other unique celestial events, or for public tours and speaking engagements.

W.M. Keck Observatory

California Institute of Technology and University of California

Open to the Public? Yes
Cal Tech and the University of California system (and, to a lesser extent, NASA) cooperate to operate the W.M. Keck Observatory. This impressive, state-of-the-art observatory is actually located atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The observatory’s crown jewels are certainly its massive twin telescopes. Each  towers eight stories tall, weighs in at 300 tons, and is incredibly precise when it comes to searching space. The observatory is mostly used by researchers and faculty and students of several California and Hawaii universities. It opens up occasionally for Hawaiian locals and other visitors.

Yerkes Observatory

University of Chicago

Open to the Public? Yes
Located on 77 park-like acres in Wisconsin, the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory has been around since 1897. The observatory’s pride and joy is the 40-inch diameter telescope. The facility also consists of classrooms and research labs for undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students and faculty. Yerkes Observatory offers guided tours to the public on Saturdays year round.

By GVC Staff
September 2018