“Galileo” Helps Celebrate the Smithsonian’s Newest Acquisition

Aristotle was wrong—just ask Galileo’s ghost.

The 17th-century Italian was on hand today to witness the official opening of the National Air and Space Museum’s Public Observatory, a new 22-foot (6.7-meter) dome housing a more than 40-year-old telescope.


“Galileo” and David DeVorkin stargaze in front of the observatory’s dome.

—Photograph by Eric Long/NASM, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The 16-inch (40-centimeter) Boller and Chivens telescope is an artifact on loan from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, once a feature of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., but now based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The telescope had been purchased in 1966 and used for research at Harvard’s Oak Ridge Observatory, about 30 to 40 miles (48 to 64 kilometers) from Cambridge.

When Oak Ridge closed in 2005, the museum’s senior space historian, David DeVorkin, had an idea: Bring the historic telescope to the Mall, but don’t put it in a display case. Instead, make it available for public use.

Starting today, museum visitors can head over to the East Terrace Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and see like an astronomer. And yes, it is entirely possible to closely examine the sun (with special filters), the moon, and several of the brighter stars, planets, and nebulae during broad daylight.


—Photograph by Eric Long/NASM, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Like a Mauna Kea dome in miniature, the new facility has a rotating top and a sliding door in the ceiling to protect the telescope from the elements. FYI, if you’re there on a cloudy or rainy day, you won’t be able to use the observatory.

Overall, the project makes for a nice complement to the museum’s collections, since it should help the museum’s seven million annual visitors gain first-hand understandings of the science presented inside the building, noted museum director General John R. “Jack” Dailey.

“The observatory will enable us to share our mission in an interactive way,” Dailey told reporters at this morning’s unveiling ceremony.

And Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, called the telescope a “key element” in the museum’s education mission, “since it is so physical, so dramatic.”

Speaking of drama, one of the highlights of the ceremony was DeVorkin’s speech, which was interrupted by an unnamed actor portraying Galileo.

In a re-enactment of many an astronomer’s dream interview, DeVorkin plied Galileo for information about his famous first glimpses of the heavens 400 years ago and how he came to his now celebrated conclusions about what revolves around what.

Contrary to the then-beloved teachings of Greek philosopher Aristotle, “the heavens are not perfect,” Galileo told the crowd. Just look at the orb of the moon. Its seemingly smooth face is actually littered with valleys and mountains [really impact craters, later astronomers figured out].


The moon’s pockmarked surface is clearly visible in a picture taken August 3 with a Meade Lunar and Planetary Imager mounted on the Public Observatory’s telescope.

—Photograph courtesy Smithsonian Public Observatory Project

“And have you looked at the little ears on Saturn?” Galileo asked. Or at Jupiter, which has four distinct spheres in its orbit? If something is rotating around Jupiter, that means not all things in the heavens revolve around Earth!

Galileo published some of these initial findings in 1610 in Sidereus Nuncius, the first scientific “paper” based on telescopic astronomy.

A first edition of this publication is also on display for the next three months at Air and Space, safely ensconced inside the museum’s “Explore the Universe” gallery.

Changing Planet