Observe the Night Skies
by Helen Zhang, age 14
On a clear and crisp evening reporters from Simpson Street Free Press set out for the UW-Madison campus. There, we got a chance to visit the Washburn Observatory and catch a glimpse of some well-known planets in the night skies.
The Washburn Observatory was built in 1878 on a small hill now known as Observatory Hill. It is named after Cadwallader C. Washburn, former U.S. Representative, Civil War general, and governor of Wisconsin. Washburn was a prominent proponent for the construction of an observatory on the UW campus. He donated a large amount of money to the university to aid in the building of the observatory.
To keep funds flowing and to sustain the Washburn Observatory, University astronomers sold accurate time signals to railroad companies and other businesses such as clock-makers. By using the stars, the astronomers were able to accurately calculate exact time. These businesses required accurate time in order to function properly. At one point, selling time made up at least 15 percent of Washburn Observatory’s annual income.
Upon arriving at the Washburn Observatory, we were given a short tour of this intriguing building by James Lattis, director of the UW Space Place, and Dan McCammon, a Space Physics Professor at the UW.
In 2008 and 2009, Washburn Observatory underwent a remodeling. The library, however, was preserved to maintain historical accuracy. After walking down a short hallway, we were led to the library of the observatory. Tall bookshelves lined the walls, comfortable couches were strategically placed throughout the room, and old gaslights hung from the ceiling. Altogether, it had an antique feel to it.
The day we visited was a beautiful autumn evening and the skies were clear of clouds. That night, we were able to see three major planets in our galaxy: Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. This trip was a wonderful experience. It felt like we were exploring the universe, which we were.
If you like science, or if you’re curious about space you should arrange to visit the Washburn Observatory. The Washburn Observatory is open to the general public on the first and third Wednesday of every month. Hours vary depending on the season so be sure to check out the Washburn Observatory website for more details!