In the Virginia Living Museum’s Abbitt Observatory, we safely view the heavens with a variety of instruments, including our 16-inch Meade telescope. We offer daytime observations of the Sun, as well as periodic nighttime views of the stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies and other celestial wonders.
The observatory is accessible to all, via elevator, and the main telescope can be raised and lowered to fit the height of the viewer.
Other instruments used at our observatory include:
- 8” Celestron telescope
- 4.5″ Orion Astroview telescope
- 10″ Meade telescope
- Solar viewers with #14 arc welder’s glass
Daytime Observatory viewing is dependent on weather and staff availability. Please note that even minor weather considerations, such as haze or wispy clouds, can completely block our view of the sky. We cannot guarantee that the observatory will be operable at any given time. We are happy to conduct tours of our observatory even on cloudy days – please call ahead for staff availability. We cannot allow guests on our rooftop deck during rain or thunderstorms for safety reasons.
Nighttime viewing is available at our monthly star parties, held on the second Saturday of each month and during special events, depending on the weather. Star Party viewing is with portable telescopes located in the Conservation Garden. See information about evening events.
Dates: June 16 – September 3 (Monday – Saturday)
- If the sky is clear: the observatory is open from 2-3pm for solar viewing
- If the sky is cloudy: the observatory is open from 2-3pm. Tour the observatory and learn about how we view the Sun.
- If it is raining or very wet: the observatory is closed. Join us at the How Life Survives Discovery Center on the upper level and take part in a UV Protection activity at 2pm.
Frequently Asked Questions
How big is the observatory dome?
The Abbitt Observatory has a 5-meter Silver Series Observa-dome, which can be rotated to allow the telescope to be pointed to any portion of the sky. The dome alone cost about $70,000.
Can I operate the dome?
Well, yes and no. For safety reasons, only trained staff members and volunteers are permitted to operate the observatory dome. You should never touch the dome or its wiring, especially when it is in motion. But, you can become a volunteer and learn how to do it yourself! For more information, visit our Volunteer page.
What kind of telescope do you use in the observatory?
The Museum has a 16-inch Meade LX200GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with an Autostar II Hand Controller. This means the telescope opening is 16 inches across, it was made by the Meade Company, it comes with a GPS system built in, the eyepiece is attached directly opposite the telescope opening, and the telescope is computer controlled.
What kind of mount does the telescope have?
We are using an altazimuth mount, rather than an equatorial, with a telescoping pier made by Pier-Tech. This allows us to raise or lower the telescope for the viewer without changing the focus.
How much does the telescope magnify? What is the power of the telescope?
The answer to this depends on the eyepiece used. Usually we use a 26mm eyepiece, which means we are magnifying about 180 times.
How much does a telescope like this one cost?
A telescope like this one costs about $13,000. However, great views can be had with far less expensive equipment.
Can I use the telescope?
Well, yes and no. We do not allow visitors to operate our telescope for safety reasons. However, nearly all of our telescope operators are volunteers who have been trained in its use by our staff! For information on volunteering, please visit our Volunteer page.
Can you help me with my telescope? What kind of telescope should I buy?
Our staff is more than willing to help amateur stargazers! If you need help with a telescope you already own, please contact one of our staff astronomers at 757-595-1900 ext. 256 to set up an appointment. If you’re interested in buying a telescope, check out our Telescope FAQ or call us at 757-595-1900 ext. 256.
Is it safe to view the Sun with the telescope?
We do not use our 16″ Meade for solar viewing. However, solar observations are possible with our smaller telescopes. As long as the filter is in place and working properly, it is perfectly safe to look through the telescope at the Sun. It is not safe to look at the Sun directly, even at sunrise or sunset, when the Sun appears red. For more information on viewing the Sun, please see our Solar Viewing FAQ.
Do you ever look at the nighttime sky?
Yes, we have evening observing during our monthly star parties and special evening programs. Star Party viewing is with portable telescopes located in the Conservation Garden. See when the next special evening event is scheduled.
Why isn’t the observatory open more often?
The observatory can only be opened during clear weather (even light cloudiness can completely block our view, day or night), and there must be sufficient staff available to operate it. For more information on how you can train to be an observatory volunteer at the Museum, please visit our Volunteer page.
Can I bring my class/group/troop to use the telescope?
For safety reasons, we do not allow anyone to operate the telescope except our staff. Groups who visit during the day are welcome to visit the observatory as part of their exhibit tour. For evening observations, special arrangements can be made for groups to rent the observatory and deck for evening star parties. Find out about facility rentals. Alternatively, you can schedule an Astro Camp-In for your group. Astro Camp-Ins involve your group sleeping overnight in the Museum and can include a special observing session. Scouting groups can earn a badge during their Astro Camp-In.
Need More Information? Contact Us!
Kelly Herbst, Curator of Astronomy
757-595-1900 ext. 256