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A Visit to Fuertes Observatory, a Shining Star on East Hill

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For astronomy students and casual stargazers alike, the century-old facility is a beloved campus spot

By Martha E. Pollack

One Friday night late last semester, I met a group of Meinig Scholars on top of a small hill on North Campus, just beyond Helen Newman Hall. Our destination for the evening was the Fuertes Observatory: an unassuming white building that is also the home of the Cornell Astronomical Society (CAS).

It would be easy to walk past Fuertes without even noticing it. Over the 106 years that it has stood on its hill, I’m sure many people have. But those who leave Cornell without paying Fuertes a nighttime visit have missed one of the gems of the campus, and an object lesson in the kinds of opportunities the University offers to the remarkable students it attracts.

There to greet us that evening, as they are every Friday night when classes are in session, was a group of CAS members: undergraduate students who love stars, and have found at Cornell the perfect place to feed their passion. We clustered spellbound as they introduced us to the observatory’s treasures—its astrograph, its Lantern Slide Wall, and its century-old centerpiece: the Irving Porter Church refractor, which, on clear nights, can bring the rings of Saturn into view.

Those who leave Cornell without paying Fuertes a nighttime visit have missed one of the gems of the campus.

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It being November and this being Ithaca, the night was anything but clear, and we couldn’t see the stars. (As one of the CAS students told me cheerfully, “If you come every Friday night for all four years, you’re almost guaranteed to see something!”) But their enthusiasm was undimmed, and their expertise apparent, as they easily answered every question we asked them—sharing their pride in the observatory, their passion for stars and for space, and the paths that had brought them to Cornell and to CAS.

Cornell is one of the world’s leading institutes for space sciences, with a distinguished department of astronomy and research center in astrophysics and planetary science; a school of mechanical and aerospace engineering; a spacecraft planetary image facility; and a strong tradition of NASA partnership.

Here, the students of CAS found not only world-leading expertise in astronomy and space sciences, but the resources to observe and explore the sky on their own. They have become part of a community of scholars from, and with which, to learn. And every Friday night—under skies cloudy or clear—they teach.

Top: Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University

Posted April 25, 2023


  1. John Hupcey, Class of 1974

    When I took the intro astronomy course taught by “contrarian” professor Thomas Gold (see Cornell Alumni Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2003) we were promised observation nights at the observatory. For both semesters, there was never a scheduled night which wasn’t cloudy!

  2. Nicely written article about the Observatory. My prospective student and I will be attending an Open House event at Cornell and found out that we will not be able to tour the Observatory at that time because we are visiting on a Saturday. The Observatory sounds like a unique feature and educational element to the University to compliment their Astronomy program, too bad my future Astronomy student won’t be able to access it as part of the University’s Open House event.

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