Stellar Secret

The observatory of America's first woman astronomer

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he first American woman to discover a comet through a telescope, Maria Mitchell was America’s first woman astronomer, the first woman professor of astronomy at a U.S. university—Vassar, where she was hired in 1865—and the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Mitchell discovered what is now called Comet Mitchell on October 1, 1847, from the roof of the Pacific National Bank building, still standing at the head of Main Street, where her father worked as a cashier. The telescope she used that night is in her birthplace, a typical Quaker-style Nantucket home built in 1790 now known as the Maria Mitchell House and Museum of Astronomy, along with her eyeglasses, her desk from Vassar, and other items; she is buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery. A science library across the road has Mitchell’s journals, personal library, lecture notes and other papers.

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The Maria Mitchell Association also operates two observatories: the Vestal Street Observatory (above) at 3 Vestal St., built in 1908, which gives tours Monday through Saturday at 11 in the summer; and the Loines Observatory at 59 Milk St. Extension, near Mitchell’s burial site, which has evening viewings Monday through Wednesday.

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