On a chilly and clear February night, 17 students ventured to the Dearborn Observatory for their Astronomy 101 class. As the students walked through the thick iron door into the dome, moonshine and a clear sky welcomed them in.  

However, you don’t have to be in an astronomy class, or even be a student at Northwestern to visit the observatory. Dearborn Observatory offers the public a chance to see the stars for free every Friday night, provided the skies are clear and the weather is good.

Prior to the Civil War, the University of Mississippi commissioned the creation of the lens, which made its way to the University of Chicago and finally ended up at Northwestern in 1887. In 1860 upon its creation, it broke the record for the largest refracting telescope in the world, and held onto that record for six years.

Weinberg first-year Janelys Graciano Betancourt recounted her first trip to the observatory and the awe she felt standing in the dome.

“You go up the creakiest stairs you've ever been on; you feel like you’re about to fall through the floor," Graciano Betancourt said. "All of a sudden you're standing in front of a behemoth of a telescope. You can't help but look upwards and look at the moon that's shining outside.”

The observatory is doused in red light, the light with the longest wavelength and least energy. It has the least interference with light that’s coming into the telescope, which aids the telescope lens directly open to the night sky.

The observatory is doused in red light to prevent interference with the telescope (Photo courtesy of Hannah Zhou / North by Northwestern).

That night, students had two telescopes to look through. The Teaching Assistant (TA) for the class controlled both the main lens and the smaller telescope on rolling wheels that used a mirror to focus incoming light instead.

Weinberg first-year Lauren Levinson had a chance to look through both telescopes.

“I was surprised that with the smaller telescopes, I was able to see a better resolution of the moon than with the giant telescope,” Levinson said.

Weinberg first-year Lauren Levinson peering through the telescope (Photo courtesy of Hannah Zhou / North by Northwestern).

Weinberg first-year Nick Sacharski was surprised at how old Dearborn Observatory felt, despite knowing that the telescope is over 100 years old.

“Everything in that room seemed ancient, the floorboards seemed ancient,” Sacharski said.

NU Professor Dr. Michael Smutko is the director of the observatory, and said that the observatory has been offering free public viewing sessions for decades.  

One theory about the history of Dearborn and how it ended up at NU has been widely circulated. Back in 1887, the telescope moved to NU from the University of Chicago after it went bankrupt. In return, the school had to allow the public in the observatory for free viewing sessions.

But according to Smutko, this exchange for the lens is mostly unfounded.

“I'm not sure if that story is true or not,” Smutko said. “But I like that story and certainly free tours to the public is something that we would have done anyway.”

Despite the grandiose view of the night sky, Graciano Betancourt said that she felt a little disappointed that the passing comet was barely visible through the telescope, describing it as what looked like “a fart in the wind.”

“When I actually look inside the lens, it's the palest, most faintest green speck on the bottom right corner,” she said. “I thought it was gonna be bigger, more [high-definition].”

However, according to Smutko, although it's disappointing to not be able to see the comet clearly, it’s to be expected.

“That is the fault of the combination between the generally awful weather that we have in Evanston and even worse light pollution that we have being so close to Chicago," he said. "So if you put a fuzzy faint object against the very bright background like you have here in Chicago, it just makes it hard [to see].”

However, Graciano Betancourt, Sacharski and Levinson shared the same sentiment that they would be willing to come back and view the stars once more.

“Yeah I would do it again,” Graciano Betancourt said. “I'll bring my friends as well!”