The Dearborn Telescope with its 18.5-inch refracting lens may date back to the Civil War, but every Friday night, families can visit the observatory on Northwestern University's campus to watch a computer guide the ancient mechanism as it sweeps this way and that to cover the sky.
Dearborn Observatory offers two viewings every Friday night. September hours are 9-10 p.m. and 10-11 p.m. Reservations are required for the first hour, which limits the number to 20 and allows for better traffic control, says Carrie Middleton, program assistant at Northwestern's Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics. Each visitor gets three to five minutes looking through the telescope, and four to five celestial objects are viewed during the hour.
The second hour is open to walk-ins, which means you might have to compete for viewing time with more skywatchers, Middleton says.
Beginning the first Friday in October, however, the sessions are bumped up an hour (8-9 p.m. and 9-10 p.m.), which is more appealing to parents, Middleton says.
Obviously weather is a factor, but Middleton points out that even when cloud cover prevents viewing, kids still get excited just seeing the telescope. Smaller children may not be able to see anything through the scope, Middleton says, because "they may not be able to relax their eye enough. But the telescope still leaves an impression. Kids will want to come back. It's never too early to instill a passion for this kind of thing."
There's a ramp for access into the building, but the dome is only accessible by climbing three dozen stairs. There is no elevator.
Getting to the observatory, however, is pretty easy. It's located behind Garrett Theological Seminary on Sheridan Road, and the large parking lot directly south of Garrett is free to the public after 4 p.m. That lot is located between the traffic lights at Foster to the south and Noyes to the north.
It's worth the trip, Middleton says. "Kids need to be exposed to more science, even in this age of technology. This is a chance to see the real deal. The sooner kids are exposed to science, the better off we'll be as a society."