To infinity and beyond

Alabama Living Magazine

Observatories share the universe with the rest of us

By Emmett Burnett

All eyes are on the crescent moon during this early summer Tuscaloosa night, weather permitting. Unfortunately, the weather did not permit, but not to worry. 

The next evening proves just fine for stargazing from the roof of the University of Alabama’s Gallalee Hall. After all, most celestial objects have existed for billions of years, so what’s one more night?

Tuscaloosa’s observatory is one of several throughout Alabama, with mammoth telescopes focused on galactic phenomena. Each reach for the stars and you can, too. Here are 5 such observatories from across the state, sharing the universe with the rest of us, to infinity and beyond.

The University of Alabama, Gallalee Hall Observatory

“Some find it overwhelming,” says Dr. Jeremy Bailin, associate professor of physics and astronomy, at the University of Alabama. Recalling visitor reactions after seeing space through professional optics, he adds, “We have seen people become emotional and tear up.”

Sam Boos, a UA graduate student in physics and astronomy, who works with Bailin, adds, “Just seeing the moon up close renders so many details, mountain ranges, craters, and terrain. It’s just amazing.”

The university’s Astronomy Group holds monthly “public nights” with free admission and no experience necessary. After a brief discussion about what awaits, visitors ascend to the rooftop and enter the copper domed observatory atop Gallalee Hall. A telescope, about the size of a Civil War cannon, awaits.

“To me, the experience of seeing space up close is humbling, realizing how small we are in the vastness of space,” says Bailin. “I may be a tiny bit of the universe, but I am that tiny part that gets to look at the other parts of it. Yes, I am humbled, but seeing it – nebulas, planets, the moon and more – in real time gives me a stronger connection to our universe.”

The Horsehead Nebula, part of the constellation Orion and a portion of which resembles a horse’s head.
Photo courtesy of the Von Braun Astronomical Society, Michael Buford

James Wylie Shepherd Observatory, The University of Montevallo

You literally cannot believe what you are seeing – not just through the telescope but the building that houses it. The facility features a state of the art 20-inch telescope, mounted on a hydraulic pier in a robotic 20.5-foot diameter observatory dome. 

“But I don’t see anything,” a visitor says, squinting through the scope’s eyepiece. “Give it a few seconds for your eyes to adjust,” Jecca Shumate, Environmental Education Program director, says. A few seconds later, often followed by gasps, the magic happens. 

“I love watching people’s reactions when first seeing a planet,” Shumate continues. “Viewed with the naked eye, people see Jupiter, Saturn, and the others as tiny points in a black sky. But then they see it through our telescope.” The ‘Oh, wow factor’ kicks in.

Visitors observe Jupiter’s distinct features with its red spot, a continuously churning hurricane larger than Earth. They count the rings of Saturn, each band made of debris from ice, rocks, asteroids, in place since recorded time. “Some can’t believe what they are looking at,” Shumate notes. “They express shock and disbelief.”

Montevallo’s site, which is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, welcomes the public through its educational programs. Observatory visits include day programs for sun gazing. Do not try this at home. Montevallo has a portable telescope specifically designed to view the sun. You do not.

Incidentally, for those interested, a 20-inch telescope, similar to Montevallo’s, can be yours for about $40,000. Computerized mounting platform, and specially designed astronomy building with robotic controlled roof, sold separately. 

The UNA Planetarium and Observatory

The University of North Alabama Planetarium and Observatory.

In 1964, at what was then Florence State College, two-stage construction began for an observatory and planetarium. The goal was to serve the college and the public, with access to both facilities. Fifty-nine years later, the University of North Alabama’s Planetarium and Observatory still meets those needs with a sense of wonder.

“Everybody, of course, wants to see the planets and the moon,” says UNA’s Planetarium and Observatory Director Mel Blake. “But there are also star clusters. They look really nice.” 

“The ring nebula is impressive,” he adds. “It looks like a smoke ring. Actually it’s an old star, about 10 billion years old, that ejected gas into space as it died. The same thing will happen to our sun, in about 4 ½ to 5 billion years.” At that point, life on earth will cease to exist. 

But on a happier note, the UNA Planetarium and Observatory offers weekly public nights, incorporating discussions of what is currently up in the night sky with observing what was just discussed.

Dr. Jeremy Balin, University of Alabama associate professor of physics and astronomy, readies UA’s observatory telescope in preparation for night viewing.
Photo by Emmett Burnett

In addition to universities, clubs and astronomy-based groups share public viewings, such as these two:

The Von Braun Astronomical Society (VBAS)

Like Bailin, Michael Buford, president of VBAS near Huntsville, offers similar views about searching the cosmos. “This may sound silly, but I ground myself by looking at space,” he says, from VBAS’ earth base in Monte Sano State Park. “From the first time I looked through a telescope and saw that planets are more than dots in the sky, I was hooked. There is nothing like it.”

VBAS shares its facilities through scheduled viewings. The moon is a popular favorite, but other contenders include Jupiter, Saturn, star clusters, and more. First time viewers are often amazed and one young visitor was skeptical.

“Viewed up close, Saturn’s rings are clearly visible,” says Buford. “That often surprises people. We once had an 8-year-old boy look through our telescope. He jumped back and didn’t believe what he saw.” The youngster shouted, “That’s a sticker! You put a sticker with a picture of Saturn on your lenses!” 

VBAS public events include planetarium lectures followed by telescope viewing.

In addition, the space place is a legacy of Alabama’s space program. One of the group’s charter members was legendary Dr. Wernher von Braun, missile technology expert who in the 1950s put the Rocket in Rocket City, also known as Huntsville. 

The Auburn Astronomical Society

There is no party like a star party, and the Auburn Astronomical Society rocks it like a meteor. 

The Auburn group gathers in scheduled, often remote locations, for unencumbered stargazing. It recently received permission to observe nighttime skies from Heaven Hill on Russell Lands at Lake Martin. 

“A constant problem with viewing space is light pollution,” notes the Auburn group’s president, Allen Screws. The more lights around, from cityscapes, residential homes, and business areas, the less visibility one has for stargazing. “But Heaven Hill does not have those issues,” Screws notes, “It makes for great viewing.”

Photo of the moon, as taken at the University of Alabama’s Gallalee Hall Observatory.
Photo courtesy University of Alabama

The Auburn astronomy hobbyists happily share the experience with others. Though core dues-paying members are about 20, star parties and other events have gathered 100 or more people. 

From major universities to societies and clubs, statewide space enthusiasts scan the skies. We are invited to join them for a glimpse into infinity, billions of years in the making, and ready to behold, under Alabama skies.

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