Looking up: Holcomb Observatory Reopens to Public

Exterior shot of Holcomb Observatory
The Holcomb Observatory, located on Butler University’s campus, sits above a grassy Butler University logo. Photo by Ellie Allen.

By Ellie Allen and Katie Freeman

Situated atop a grassy hill on the north end of Butler University’s campus sits the largest telescope in Indiana. The Holcomb Observatory’s presence on campus is unique, as few observatories are open to the public. For many, it is a magnetic force, attracting visitors from across the state — as well as prospective students.

Sera Shaughnessy, a senior astrophysics, physics and astronomy major at Butler, has worked for the observatory since her freshman year. She said the Holcomb Observatory was the primary reason she came to the university.

“I’m from California,” Shaughnessy said. “I have absolutely no interest in being in the state of Indiana. But that building, I swear to God, is like, the best thing on this campus… I will come in at two or three o’clock in the morning, when there’s not a cloud in the sky, and I’ll just come and look at things in the sky that I want to see or different stars, and I could spend days using the telescope. I just find it very calming to be there.”

The telescope in Holcomb Observatory is the largest in the state of Indiana. Brian Murphy photo.

The observatory draws crowds of all ages, but Shaughnessy said she believes everyone has the same reaction: childlike enthusiasm. The building contains the only planetarium in the Indianapolis area, making it a popular destination among local astrology enthusiasts and space lovers. Prior to COVID-19 restrictions being implemented in March, 2020, the observatory was hosting between 200 and 300 guests each night — a record amount, according to the observatory’s director.

Associate director, Richard Brown, is in his 31st year working at the observatory. He said both the observatory’s connection to Butler and its location are big draws for the public. “I think this is the most unique opportunity at Butler University,” Brown said. Located in the middle of a beautiful campus in a major metro area is a plus, he said, “The fact that it’s centrally located, we pull people from southern Indiana, northern Indiana, western and eastern Indiana.” After visitors complete their daytime activities, Brown noted that they want to come to the observatory at night. “It provides a really nice opportunity.”

Grand Reopening Sept. 24

Although Holcomb Observatory is currently closed to the public, that will soon change. Beginning September 24, the observatory reopens for Friday and Saturday night tours. At its reopening, the observatory will have a brand new star show featuring a narrative focused on the autumn sky. Shaughnessy has been producing the presentation.

To put the production together, Shaughnessy spent hundreds of hours over the summer coding the visuals for the new show. The show will tell the story of Perseus, Andromeda and Medusa. These characters from Greek mythology were chosen since these constellations are visible in the autumn night sky. According to Shaughnessy, planetarium star shows take around 1,600 lines of code to work and involve coordination between the code, the graphics and the speaker. Each show incorporates a movie and a program that highlights the stars positioned in the night sky at that moment.

Shaughnessy said she is excited for the public to be able to see and interact with the show, so she can get their feedback and make adjustments. “I tell all my tours this — that I would be there whether they paid me or not,” Shaughnessy said. “I just absolutely love it. I enjoy working with people but also like working in a planetarium setting. That’s definitely something I’m passionate about.”

Shows are run by docents, or tour guides, who are Butler University students majoring within the department of physics and astronomy. New tour guides are currently being trained for the opening of the observatory, but even some of the university’s most seasoned student guides said they are also in need of a refresher following their year-plus hiatus.

Wyatt Spies, a senior astronomy and astrophysics, mathematics, and physics major, has worked at the observatory as a tour guide since his first year. Spies said although he may need to readjust, he can’t wait to return to his role. “It’s really exciting to be able to do it again and to have people come to the observatory and be able to use it after being basically dormant for a year and a half,” Spies said. “But you’ve got to knock the rust off, you’ve got to figure out what you’ve forgotten over [time] about the observatory, about the telescope, and get reacquainted with all the technology you have to use.”

Brian Murphy, physics professor and director of the observatory, is in his 28th year working for the observatory. He said the shows become like an art, as students meld technology with performance. “They get the feature film, and then they get the star show with the students basically running it all and having to do the speaking and raise their voice, lower their voice, [and] run all the graphics at the same time,” Murphy said. “So it is literally almost a bit of theater we put it into and [with the projector] it is a bit of choreography.”

Hanging Around the Observatory

The observatory was built in 1953 and has since undergone renovations to keep technology in line with other observatories. Most recently, interactive digital screens were installed in the lobby for guests to view outside of tours. However, the biggest renovation took place in 2018 and included an upgrade to the planetarium digital software.

Murphy said this upgrade has allowed for a better experience for patrons. “This planetarium can do exactly what any other planetarium in the world can do, whether it’s Adler Planetarium in Chicago [or the National Air and Space Museum],” Murphy said. “We’re on a smaller scale, but it’s going to be the same thing.”

A view of stars and galaxies displayed by the projector in the planetarium. Brian Murphy photo.

Observatory staff said they enjoy being able to meet observatory patrons and teach the public about outer-space. “There isn’t a better job,” Brown said. “There’s one thing that young people always like, and that’s dinosaurs and outer space. And so we have a large audience, and a lot of people who have a real interest in what’s going on in outer space, and I want to have a place that they can come to and communicate with.”

Like Brown, Shaughnessy said she enjoys when audiences are excited about visiting the observatory. Her favorite shows to give are to kids because they have the most enthusiasm. “I’ve gotten so many little kids come up and hug me afterwards and they’re just so much fun,” Shaughnessy said. “They love to participate, you can ask them questions. They just want to be involved.”

While the observatory can frequently be at capacity during its peak seasons, its biggest crowds are often the result of celestial events — the 2017 partial solar eclipse drew around 1,000 observers to the building.

Murphy said he believes that the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024  will be Holcomb Observatory’s biggest event yet, necessitating planning far in advance. He anticipates that a national spotlight will be shone upon the observatory, given its prominence and proximity to the eclipse.

For Brown, large events help further his main long-term goal for the observatory: sharing it with as many others as possible. “I’d like to hear everyone say that I’ve been to Butler University’s Holcomb Observatory,” Brown said. “We’re here for the public. That’s why Mr. Holcomb donated this to the campus, and we would like to hear of everybody having the opportunity to come here.”

Weekend shows start at 7 p.m. and cost $5 for kids and $8 for adults. The planetarium is free for Butler University students, faculty and staff and the telescope viewing is free for everyone. Private group tours are also available at any time. Tickets to see the planetarium show can be purchased each evening in the lobby of the observatory after doors open at 7 p.m. and private tours can be reserved on the Holcomb Observatory website. 

Ellie Allen and Katie Freeman are Butler University students enrolled in JR411, Multimedia Newsroom. Their reporting is part of a partnership between the magazine and Butler University.