A Night at the Leitner Observatory

Design by Yuen Ning Chang

At first, I see void.

I back away from the eyepiece and allow myself a few blinks. I can’t recall the last time I looked through a telescope—probably elementary school. Needless to say, my astronomical observing skills are a bit rusty. But I certainly didn’t walk all the way up Science Hill and stumble about through the Tuesday evening darkness to be defeated by a slender plastic tube.

I try again. This time, something on the upper left-hand corner catches my eye: both easy to overlook and astonishingly clear, a bright little Saturn, crowned with its signature golden rings. For an instant, my breath catches in my throat, much like the first time I felt the steady rumble of a train hurtling over its tracks, or saw a firefly pulse yellow-green in the middle of the Branford courtyard. Saturn finally feels real. The entire universe does.

Of course, I can’t revel in this newfound clarity forever—it’s less than a minute before I feel a line forming behind me. I turn around to see a little girl, latched onto her father’s hand, pointing at the apparatus with an impatient expression. Oh well. The night is still young. I step aside as her father lifts her up to meet the eyepiece.

Up Prospect Street, past Franklin and Murray, past the Physics and Chemistry labs, along a winding path, behind an array of trees, and tucked inside what resembles a wolf’s den, lies the Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium, Yale’s on-campus observatory. On clear Tuesday nights, around 8pm, the observatory hosts public viewing sessions, during which all are invited to follow the winding path for a chance to come face-to-face with the planets, stars, and galaxies hiding in plain sight right above our heads.

The idea of hosting observatory public nights is neither new nor exclusive to Yale; many universities with on-campus observatories to open them up on certain nights. According to Dr. Michael Faison, current director of the observatory, Yale has been doing some version of this since before he began working here. Nevertheless, as an avid stargazer since early childhood, Faison was eager to add fresh impetus to the project when he arrived at Yale in 2004. He’d previously worked on organizing “Far-Off Fridays” at the Adler Planetarium in downtown Chicago, where he set up telescopes on the building’s deck and pointed out different planets and constellations to visitors. The experience left him committed to the night sky’s secrets accessible to all.

After a carpentry building across from Farnam Memorial Gardens was transformed into the Leitner Family Observatory in 2005, Faison and his department were able to bring a similar project on Yale’s campus. Once a week, weather permitting, the Leitner’s observation deck would open to the public for a little over an hour. Members of the Yale community, as well as surrounding New Haven neighborhoods, could enjoy stunning views of celestial objects, guided by Yale astronomers.

The sessions continued in this form until 2009, when the observatory acquired another upgrade: a 50-seat planetarium theater with a high-definition digital projection system. Public nights were no longer at the mercy of the elements. Rain or shine, the Leitner could host two planetarium shows every Tuesday night, along with monthly public lectures and special events ranging from movie nights to summer camps. The optional donations collected from the planetarium shows were used towards producing and purchasing new ones. And as always, public viewing followed the shows whenever the skies were clear.

But in March 2020, the COVID pandemic forced the Leitner to shut its doors to the public. Faison and the rest of the observatory’s staff concentrated their efforts on monthly livestreams simulating them, but it wasn’t until July 2021 that Tuesday night public observing sessions resumed in full. There was, however, one caveat: because of pandemic restrictions, the planetarium remained shuttered indefinitely. As of today, it still is. The department is currently working towards opening up to the public again. Perhaps by operating at a reduced capacity or with the implementation of a ticket reservation system, the universe could light up the dome once more.

One of the many amateur astronomers orbiting the observation deck calls Dr. Faison over to the telescope that just gave me my first glimpse of Saturn. Apparently, the ringed planet has drifted out of frame. This particular telescope—a 12-inch reflector—has just been wheeled out for the night. Unlike the two 8-inch reflecting telescopes mounted on the observing deck, which have motors that allow the telescopes to remain locked on their targets as the Earth turns, this one is stationary and subject to the Earth’s rotation. It will have to be continuously readjusted throughout the course of the night in order to keep up. 

Apart from the three telescopes on the deck, two more stationary telescopes reside within the twin domes on either side of the planetarium. I join a queue leading into the East dome, which is also open for observing. The inside of the dome glows bright red, save for the rectangular patch of sky visible through its opening. An imposing, elaborate instrument protrudes from this aperture: this is the Reed telescope, a historic 8-inch refractor built in 1876 and acquired by Yale in 1882 to study the transit of Venus. After catching another image of Saturn, I visit the other telescopes in quick succession. Back on the deck, Jupiter greets me first. It’s bright enough that I can clearly differentiate its milky stripes and the four Galilean satellites flanking it. A few feet away, another telescope is pointed at Albireo, the blue-red double star that dots the constellation Cygnus’s beak. Just as I pull away from the sight, another visitor goes up to Faison and asks about the Andromeda galaxy. Faison is happy to oblige, and points the telescope West. I sneak a peek right behind him at the smudgy cloud in the very center of the frame—and struggle to reconcile it with a sprawling mess of stars and planets 2,480,000 light years away.

“Should we take lights or flats?”

The voice comes from inside the West dome, which is not currently being used for public viewing. It belongs to a student from the Introduction to Astronomical Observing (ASTR 155) course taught by Faison. Students taking certain astronomy classes at Yale have access to the observatory’s more precise 16-inch reflector, which they can use to take images for labs and projects.

Apart from the ASTR 155 class, I notice the relative absence of Yale College students. The bulk of the crowd is composed of local families, as well as other amateur astronomers from the area. This last category is easily identifiable; they drift from one telescope to another with brisk confidence and engage Dr. Faison in eloquent conversation about planetary nebulae and star clusters.

According to Faison, Yale undergrads make the trek to the observatory far less frequently than graduate students or faculty. There’s an uptick, however, near the end of each school year—apparently, visiting the observatory is on many a senior’s Yale bucket list. 

A curious onlooker asks Faison about the constellations. The three of us shift our gaze upward in sync. Without the aid of the telescopes, the image overhead seems dull, a gray sheet with crumbs of light sparsely peppered throughout. Nevertheless, we follow Faison’s hand as he traces out Cygnus’s sprawling wings, Pegasus’s broad breast, the contour of Cassiopeia’s jagged body. We have to take his word that the Milky Way extends from the aforementioned swan to the woman, since its starry contour isn’t visible from New Haven.

Faison is the first to admit that New Haven isn’t exactly the best place to view the sky. “It’s better than Chicago,” he observes, “but it’s pretty bad, and it’s been getting worse.” Although the observatory is nestled among foliage, which creates a dark pocket directly surrounding the building, the trees alone aren’t enough to counteract the light pollution emitted from the city. Faison has noticed a decline in visibility over the past five years, due in part to brighter streetlights installed by the city of New Haven and plentiful sources of unshielded light in and around Yale. Though the telescopes are equipped with filters that reduce these effects, naked eye observers are often in for a bit of a disappointment.

But Faison and the rest of the people at the observatory make the best of what they have. After all, the observatory’s primary mission is not to serve as a research facility, but to facilitate connections between Yale, New Haven, and the field of astronomy. Faison recalls the satellite observatory in Bethany, Connecticut that preceded the Leitner as Yale’s student-oriented facility. The Bethany sky is significantly darker, at 23 minutes away from New Haven by car—but the observatory isn’t easily accessible to students, thus defeating the purpose. “It’s a trade-off,” Faison says, “because we want students to come up and use the observatory.” For some students, a visit to a public observing session can also be a first encounter with astronomical observing, or astronomy in general. And, for students who already harbor a passion for the field, the observatory can double as an invaluable research and community-building resource, a locus from which they can broaden their understanding of the universe and share it with others.

As I make my way back down to Old Campus, and pitch dark tranquility gives way to the bright bustle of Yale, my first instinct is to fish my phone out of my pocket and look through my photo gallery. I’m met with an array of blurry, dark pictures: failed attempts at committing the images of my night at the observatory to digital memory. 

When asked what he saw in the observatory’s future, Faison emphasized getting more involved with the broader New Haven community. Before the pandemic, the Leitner regularly hosted special programs and activities in collaboration with nearby public schools. Faison fondly recalls seeing kids who visited the planetarium with their school groups during the day arrive at the next public viewing night with friends and family in tow. He wants to put more resources towards outreach, and hopefully strengthen the observatory’s impact on New Haven. With the upcoming re-opening of the Peabody Museum after years of renovations, there’s an opportunity for Yale entities interested in public education and outreach to re-examine their commitment to the community. 

Of course, the public viewing sessions that started it all will remain a cornerstone of the Leitner’s efforts to come. No matter who you are, I encourage you to pay a visit next Tuesday, as long as the night is still and the sky is clear. There’s a lot to learn—and a lot to admire.

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