Heading West

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Heading West

As the United States expanded westward in the late 1800s, it didn’t really know where everything was. The precise locations of towns and other landmarks were a little fuzzy, so maps could be off by quite a bit. To clear things up, the country turned to the stars. It dispatched surveying parties and established special observatories from Nebraska to Utah and Nevada. And one of those observatories took its first official look at the stars 150 years ago today.

The observatory was atop a hill near Ogden, Utah, a railroad junction with a population of about 2,000. The facility consisted of three rooms covered by a tin roof, including one room for recording the weather.

The observatory used a “transit” telescope to measure the positions of the stars. It then used telegraph signals to obtain the time from several cities whose exact positions were known. Comparing the star positions with the time allowed astronomers to accurately compute the location.

Ogden’s observatory operated through 1874, and took thousands of star sightings. In addition, several groups fanned out from Ogden to determine the positions of other locations.

The first stars observed from Ogden included several bright stars of Lyra, the harp, which is high overhead as night falls. Its leading light, Vega, is one of the brighter stars in all the night sky, so it’s easy to pick out — a bright light that helped illuminate the western United States.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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