Lisa Houser had never visited the Clarence T. Jones Observatory, but now that she has, she plans to be back.
“Absolutely,” she said.
Houser came to the observatory, which is owned by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, for its Summer Solstice Science Seminar held on Wednesday, June 21—the day of the solstice when Earth is farthest from the sun.
Along with about 40 other people, she listened to lectures on the solstice, saw stunning color photos of the night sky taken by local astronomers, and learned about excellent places around Chattanooga to observe the stars and planets without light pollution. Cloudland Canyon in Georgia was highly recommended.
Attendees also were told the history of the observatory, located in Brainerd, and its 20.5-inch telescope—which couldn’t be used to see the sun on its famous day because of the clouds and rain.
Despite that unavoidable glitch, the observatory impressed Houser.
“It’s old but strangely sophisticated,” she said. “I love the young people that were talking and giving us the stories and the lectures. They were very articulate, very informed, very easy to ask questions and receive information from. Just delightful.”
The free event was sponsored by the UTC Department of Chemistry and Physics; Green Grace, an environmental program at Grace Episcopal Church; and the Barnard Astronomical Society, which was founded in 1923 and built the observatory for $50,000—about $904,000 in today’s money.
Closed during the COVID pandemic, the observatory reopened in fall 2022 after undergoing a series of spruce-up work that included newly painted concrete floors, patched roof leaks, and the interior walls scraped clean of flaking paint and repainted in UTC blue and gold colors.
Jack Pitkin, director of the observatory, said crowds for events have been well-attended since the reopening.
“We get kids that bring parents and parents that bring kids. It’s an amazing cross-section of the general public. They’re not all from the astronomical society,” he said.
During his lecture about the summer solstice, Pitkin explained that June 21 has the most daylight hours of the year—14 hours and 31 minutes.
“It’s not the hottest day of the year. It’s not going to get up into the hundreds until probably in August,” he explained. “That’s because it takes a while for the sun to heat up the atmosphere, heat up the ground, heat up the Earth.”
Despite a common misconception, he said that when the sun is at its highest point in the sky—even on the summer solstice—it is never directly overhead because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis.
The spot in the U.S. on June 21 where the sun will be as close to straight up as it gets during the year? Key West, Florida, Pitkin said.
“So if we were all in Key West, Florida, wasting away in Margaritaville, the sun will reach a point where it’ll be just about directly overhead.”