A great view usually comes at a premium and the sights through the telescopes at Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland are downright otherworldly. But museum benefactor Anthony Chabot donated the first of two telescopes in 1883 on the condition that viewings be free to the public. Today, nearly 120 years later, his wish is still respected.
The center's prized telescopes are among the largest in the nation. Regularly available to the public, they are accessible for free on Friday and Saturday evenings from 7 to 10.
Stargazers and would-be astronomers can enjoy stellar views of the moon, planets, nebulae, and even the occasional asteroid. Staff and volunteer astronomers are on hand to field questions and explain curious observations in the heavens.
"Our visitors can experience a personal one-to-one relationship with the night sky," says staff astronomer Conrad Jung. The views of Saturn's rings this time of year are about the best you ever get, Jung says.
In addition to the original 8-inch refractor telescope, named Leah, and the 20-inch refractor telescope, Rachel, the center boasts a brand-new, state-of-the-art 36-inch reflector telescope, affectionately dubbed Nellie. The new telescope—to be in place by year's end—permits viewing of remote galaxies and star clusters in even sharper detail.
Next summer the astronomers look forward to gazing at Mars with visitors. At that time, Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been in 1,000 years (there's debate among experts about just how close Mars will get).
Price Check: The University of California's Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton holds a few viewings each summer and sells a limited number of tickets for $5 each. Chabot's telescopes are available every weekend year-round (weather permitting) for free.
Tip: Clear, calm nights offer the best views. Call (510) 336-7300 or visit www.chabotspace.org  to gauge visibility before you visit.
Photography courtesy of Chabot Space & Science Center
This article was first published in November 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.