MHCC Boasts Unique Educational Equipment: A Solar Observatory

Posted: September 4, 2012

MHCC’s Pat Hanrahan and Corey Huston with the telescope at the college’s solar observatory – one of the few in the areaDid you know that Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC) has one of only two solar observatories in the Portland area?

Built in 1973 by amateur astronomer John D. Wiseman, MHCC’s solar observatory gives students an opportunity to view a more detailed version of the sun than what is visible in the sky every day. The observatory can be used to track sunspots and solar flares year by year. The sun’s activity, visible through the facility’s telescope, can influence solar winds as well as weather on Earth.

MHCC’s solar observatory is housed in a concrete, dome-shaped building located in parking lot A on the Gresham campus at 26000 S.E. Stark Street. It works by utilizing a telescope fitted with a series of filters, mirrors and glass pieces, allowing the sun’s image to be projected onto the inside wall of the dome. Viewers may see the outline of the sun, sunspots and solar flares.

One of the many things that make the solar observatory unique is the projection technique utilized. Because the image is projected onto the wall of the observatory, there is no risk of eye injury that can occur when looking directly at the sun.

“The projected image of the sun is one of the best I’ve seen and groups of people can view the sun at one time,” says Pat Hanrahan, MHCC planetarium director.

Hanrahan and Doug McCarty, retired planetarium director, have used the solar observatory in their astronomy classes on and off since its construction. Students and employees had planned to use the observatory to survey the recent transit of Venus in early June, however, poor weather conditions impacted visibility. 

Transits of Venus are some of the rarest predictable astronomical events and Venus will not pass the sun again until 2117,” says Hanrahan.

Corey Huston, science lab coordinator at MHCC, hopes to refurbish the observatory in preparation for a remarkable total solar eclipse. This project will allow MHCC students and employees to record the eclipse that is expected to leave Oregon dark for 2.5 minutes on Aug. 21, 2017.

Huston believes this solar eclipse will further connect the Portland area to the planetarium and solar observatory at MHCC. “This is an amazing piece of equipment and we want to share this resource with the community,” he says.

The solar observatory will continue to provide valuable learning experiences about the universe. As Hanrahan describes it, “I don’t think many people have the chance to actually look at the sun. Any time you can see something like that live and in person, it’s a special event.”

For more information about astronomy classes, please visit

By Teresa Lane 

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 Last Modified: 10/8/2012 02:55:39 PM