With almost two years spent at home, travelers are eager to get a few more miles under their belts. But before you book your next trip, consider what else your destination has to offer, cosmologically speaking. Here are a few space-related destinations — in alphabetical order — that you should consider checking out the next time you travel.
Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory
Completed in 1872, the Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory was designed to house the largest refractor in Italy: the Amici telescope. With an 11-inch objective lens, the telescope retained its superlative status for 40 years.
German astronomer Wilhelm Tempel used the Amici telescope in his search for new nebulae, and his drawings are still on display at Arcetri. The original Amici telescope was upgraded twice. It now houses a 14-inch objective that is currently used for public outreach.
And today, research continues at the observatory, as scientists grapple with topics ranging from the study of minor bodies of the solar system to astrobiology.
Looking for more astronomical history in Florence? A half-hour walk from the observatory is the final residence of Galileo Galilei. The villa, referred to as Il Gioiello (The Jewel), is where Galileo served his life sentence (under house arrest) from 1633 until his death in 1642. His tomb, at the Basilica of Santa Croce, is also just a little over 2 miles (3.5 kilometers) from the observatory.
The Atacama Desert in Chile is an astronomer’s paradise. Miles above sea level and free from major cities, the desert’s arid weather and sparse rain make it perfect for stargazing — so much so that it is the premier location for professional telescopes. The majority of the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) telescopes are situated in the Atacama Desert, including the Very Large Telescope and the upcoming Extremely Large Telescope. This Chilean desert is also home to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, better known as ALMA, the largest radio telescope in the world.
The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) also resides here. CTIO is a complex of around 40 telescopes and instruments, including the 4.1-meter Southern Astrophysical Research (SOAR) Telescope and the Dark Energy Survey’s Dark Energy Camera (DECam) on the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope. And while still under construction at the time of writing, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (previously named the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope [LSST]) is scheduled to begin full science observations in December of next year.
After touring these sites in the daytime, make sure you spend your nights scouring the desert skies — the best skies in the world — with your own telescope. Observers can spot all the great sights the Southern Hemisphere has to offer: the Magellanic Clouds, the Southern Cross, Proxima Centauri, and the Carina Nebula, just to name a few!
From our solar system to the Big Bang, the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany, gives visitors an introductory course on the cosmos. Visitors can explore astronomy topics on floors 3 to 6 (remember that floor 0 is the ground floor in Europe). One floor hosts plenty of hands-on physics demonstrations for both kids and adults so they can better grasp the basic concepts that astrophysicists explore. The museum also has two observatories and a planetarium that are open for tours.
On top of all that, the museum is home to a wide range of telescopes and astronomical equipment, but the must-see attraction is Fraunhofer’s Telescope. Astronomer J.G. Galle used this 9-inch (23 cm) scope in 1846 to discover Neptune.
Rose Center for Earth and Space
Part of the American Museum of Natural History, the Rose Center for Earth and Space is home to the Hayden Planetarium and a handful of permanent exhibits. Appearing to float within a glass cube, the top portion of the 87-foot (26 meters) Hayden Sphere houses the Hayden Planetarium Space Theater.
In the Hayden Big Bang Theater, visitors get to watch the birth of the cosmos — narrated by Liam Neeson — unfolding on a screen below their feet. Following a path spiraling out from the theater, visitors then walk through the history of the universe with the 360-foot-long (110 m) gallery, where one step is equal to a million years. The size of the sphere also serves as a handy visual scale when discussing celestial bodies, representing either the Sun or the Milky Way, depending on context.
The Hayden Planetarium Space Theater can seat 429 people and uses a scientifically accurate 3D map of the known universe as the foundation of the museum’s Space Shows. Called the Digital Universe Atlas, this map uses millions of astronomical observations and is maintained by a team of experts to display a hyper realistic view of the universe.
Kennedy Space Center
Cross two life achievements off your bucket list by visiting the Kennedy Space Center during a rocket launch. The Visitor Complex offers the closest possible public access to a launch, with viewing locations set up within a few miles of the launchpads. Countdowns and up-to-date information on the next rocket launch are available on their website at www.kennedyspacecenter.com.
Even if you can’t book a trip during a launch (or, worst-case scenario, the launch gets rescheduled), there are plenty of other things to do at the complex, which is divided into several themed Mission Zones. Visitors can tour the history and future of space exploration by celebrating early pioneers and rockets with the Heroes and Legends exhibit, taking a guided bus tour of the restricted areas of NASA’s space center, and getting a glimpse at the rockets that launched us to the stars.
Kitt Peak National Observatory
The Kitt Peak Observatory is a beacon of astronomical outreach for astronomers around the world, even making itself available to virtual visitors during peak pandemic times. When open to the public (double check online first), Kitt Peak has open hours during the daytime from 9 a.m. MST to 3:45 p.m. MST, during which you can tour the locations marked for visitors. Keep in mind that as a working research facility, it does include some buildings that are barred to the public.
The observatory also offers nighttime programs, provided visitors have registered in advance. Guests can choose from three programs that guide visitors through observing the night sky. An overnight observing program is also available, which places guests in the shoes of an astronomer. You will be given a dorm room, have dinner in the cafeteria with astronomers and staff, and be slotted in for telescope time.
Taking advantage of the near-pristine skies Arizona has to offer, Lowell Observatory also gives visitors a chance to do some solar and nighttime observing. But this site is on our list because of the historical telescopes it has on display.
Lowell Observatory is home to two historic telescopes: The 24-inch Clark Refractor and the 13-inch Lawrence Lowell Telescope. Percival Lowell developed his controversial views of intelligent martian life while looking through the 24-inch Clark Refractor. The telescope was later used by Vesto M. Slipher to determine that distant galaxies are moving away from us.
Visitors can also visit the site where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Nicknamed the Pluto Discovery Dome, the 13-inch Lawrence Lowell Telescope was used by Tombaugh in 1930 to discover the ninth planet in our solar system. (Later, in 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet — a decision marred by controversy.)
The Giovale Open Deck Observatory is like a candy shop for telescope enthusiasts and amateur astronomers. The plaza features six advanced telescopes for observers to look through. The 24-inch Dyer Telescope is the latest addition to the observatory, installed in 2020. Visitors can purchase a private observing session with the telescope separately from general admission.
The world’s largest astronomy museum, the Shanghai Planetarium is part of the Shanghai Science & Technology Museum. The planetarium’s overall design is inspired by the orbital motion of celestial bodies, while the three rounded shapes atop the planetarium are meant to represent the Sun, Moon, and stars.
Above the main entrance to the museum is the Oculus, where unimpeded sunlight streams through a circular skylight, marking the passage of time like a sundial. On the right side of the building is the planetarium theater, which is housed in a sphere with minimal visible support. The effect is meant to invoke the illusion of weightlessness. And finally, a visitor’s experience culminates at an inverted dome offering a view of the sky — a real encounter with the universe after a mostly simulated experience.
Permanent exhibits include a walkthrough of the history of the universe, human exploration, and China’s astronomical records; an interactive “Journey to Mars” virtual reality experience; and a 78-foot (24 m) solar telescope.
South African Astronomical Observatory
Founded in 1820, the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) is the national center for optical and infrared astronomy. Cape Town hosts the observatory’s headquarters, while several working telescopes are in the Karoo region at SAAO’s Sutherland facility.
The headquarters at Cape Town is recognized as a National Heritage Site and is accessible to visitors on Open Nights, which occur every second and fourth Sunday of the month. Guests can view a presentation on physics or astronomy, tour the museum and library, and observe through the McClean Telescope on clear nights.
With some of the best skies the world has to offer, the Sutherland site hosts the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the 1.0-meter and 1.9-meter telescopes, and the Lesedi 1-meter telescope. (Lesedi means “light” or “enlightenment” in Sesotho, one of the official languages in South Africa.) Daytime and nighttime fully guided tours of the Sutherland site are available.
A few honorable mentions
Los Angeles, California
Free to the public, Griffith Observatory overlooks Los Angeles atop Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park. Offering visitors an introduction to astronomy and telescopes (despite its light-polluted skies), the observatory also boasts the best views of the famed Hollywood sign.
National Air and Space Museum
Temporarily closed through fall 2022, the National Air and Space Museum is approaching the finish line of a seven-year renovation. By 2025, the museum plans to have reimagined its 23 exhibits and added over 1,400 new objects to its collection.
Known as the Home of Time, the Royal Observatory sits on the Prime Meridian (longitude 0°0’0’’), marking the divide between the Western and Eastern hemispheres of the globe.
Teide National Park
Canary Islands, Spain
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Teide National Park has served as a testbed for the European Space Agency’s model rovers, thanks to its lunarlike environment.
Very Large Array
Socorro, New Mexico
Closed to the public at the time of writing, the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico is normally open for self-guided tours. This walking circuit culminates with guests standing at the base of one of the 230-ton VLA antennas!
Your local space museum or planetarium
Can’t make it far from home?
That’s okay! Check nearby cities for astronomical exhibits or planetariums to enjoy. And, if all else fails, you always have access to the real deal just above your head!