Leitner observatory re-opens planetarium theater
Stargazing on Science Hill is back at full strength.
Yale’s Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium, which has been closed for shows since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, recently resumed its weekly planetarium shows, visits from school groups, and public viewing nights.
For Leitner’s legion of fans — both within Yale and across Greater New Haven — it is a welcome return to exploring the wonders of the universe from a pretty hillside on Prospect Street.
“We had a lot of regular visitors, people who would come when there was a new show or when we had a public lecture or special event. We had quite a community,” said Michael Faison, director of the observatory, academic director for the Yale Summer Program in Astrophysics, and senior lecturer in the Department of Astronomy in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “There was always a group of Yale students who would come and a group of kids from the community who would come.”
For the next few months, visitors to the observatory will get to see an updated planetarium show. “Oasis in Space,” a 25-minute exploration of the search for water elsewhere in our galaxy, includes high-definition graphics of Pluto and its moon, Charon, based on new data by the New Horizon spacecraft mission.
The Leitner observatory, which is located at 355 Prospect St. and operated by the Yale Department of Astronomy, was built in 2005. It is home to an 8-inch Reed refractor telescope that Yale purchased in 1882 and had refurbished in 2004, and a computer-controlled 0.4-meter reflecting telescope. The Leitner’s 40-seat planetarium theater, featuring a Spitz SciDomeHD system, was added in 2009.
Planetarium shows are offered at 6 and 7 p.m. on Tuesdays. Advanced ticket reservations are required, as are masks, and there is a suggested donation of $10 per adult 14 and older. Weather permitting, visitors to the planetarium shows are invited to observe the night sky through one of the observatory telescopes.
Faison, who arrived at Yale in 2004 and is a staunch advocate for public engagement in astronomy and science education, spoke with Yale News about the full resumption of public events.
What activities typically take place at Leitner — and how did COVID-19 affect operations?
Michael Faison: We use this facility mostly for classes, but also for special outreach programs like our Tuesday night public observance sessions and public planetarium shows. Also, we do a summer research program for high school students — that’s all in this building — and we do camps with the Peabody Museum of Natural History and co-sponsor events with other science departments. There’s a lot going on up here.
Of course, the building was closed in March 2020. Not much happened for a while after that. About a month went by before I got permission to come up here and get some equipment. I started doing public night events from my backyard in Hamden, streamed on YouTube. Eventually we got permission to open the observatories for observation nights. We’ve been doing that for the last two years, and now we’re finally opening the building up to the public again for planetarium shows.
What can you tell us about the current planetarium show, ‘Oasis in Space’?
Faison: One of the first shows that we got from the company that built our planetarium theater was “Oasis in Space.” It’s about looking for water in our solar system, because we think water is necessary for life as we know it. It’s a very good show but it was getting a bit dated. Now the show has new visualizations, CGI, images, and data to represent some of the latest scientific discoveries. It’s one of my favorite shows. The best planetarium shows put you in a place you couldn’t actually be and make you feel like you’re really there.
How essential is public outreach?
Faison: A big part of my job is the normal faculty work, teaching undergraduates and teaching labs. But something I greatly value, just as a person who cares about science literacy and getting people excited about astronomy, is making all of this accessible to the community, offering it as a resource to the New Haven community.
We have a number of undergrads, grad students, and postdocs who come up here and volunteer for the public viewing nights. They answer questions, give talks, and set up and run the telescopes.
Beyond attendance, how do you measure the observatory’s success?
Faison: People come with their friends, with their families. It seems like it’s an event. It’s a chance to see something amazing through the telescope, like the rings of Saturn, or an amazing star cluster, or an amazing nebula or galaxy.
To be impressed and blown away by what you see through the telescope with your own eyes, and to have the chance to talk to astronomers and ask questions — that’s a success. When there’s something in the news about the James Webb Telescope, or the green comet, or a meteor shower, people can come up here on a public night and ask us questions. It’s a way for us, as members of the Department of Astronomy, to get people thinking about things that maybe they hadn’t thought about: How is this related to the search for life in the universe? How is this related to what we think about the origin of the universe?
So much of what we’re talking about here is curiosity, isn’t it?
Faison: It’s human nature to be curious about what’s over the horizon. You can’t help it, can you?
And, of course, space is accessible to everyone. Everyone can look up and see the moon, the bright planets, the bright stars. If you have the good fortune to go out to a place where the night sky is really dark, you can see the Milky Way, you can see other galaxies with the naked eye. You can see thousands of stars. That’s accessible to everyone. I hope people will who visit us will want to do that. Put that on their bucket list. Be curious about our place in the universe.