Haystack Observatory

Is it a World's Fair site? Is it Disneyland's EPCOT? Nope, it's one of many telescopes at Haystack Observatory, and it's accessible to you by bicycle via the Nashua River Rail Trail! These observatories are significant cultural monuments. You have a lot in store with a visit to these scientific grounds. A full route description follows.

Approaching Haystack's 37m Radio Telescope (inside 46m protective dome ('radome'))
Ride Summary
  • Stats
    • Distance11mi+
    • % Bike Path~40%
    • Modifications
      Optional out-and-back on bikepath to Nashua, NH (29mi)
    • Scenery
      Forests, ponds, farms
    • Real Science Labs?Open house 2x/year, and lobby access
    • Real Instruments?Massive outdoor radio and microwave space observatories
    • Grounds Access?Public (weekdays only is listed policy)
Public Transit:
Commuter Rail from North Station or Porter Square to Ayer, MA (1hr from Boston)
RIDE OVERVIEW

Take the MBTA's Fitchburg Commuter Rail line to Ayer, MA (53min from Porter Square, or an hour from North Station). Commuter rail lines accommodate bicycles in various open areas on the train.

Once arriving in Ayer, you can immediately pick up the Nashua River Rail Trail (NRRT) and ride through Groton. From Groton, you can either merge onto winding farmland roads until you hit Haystack, or optionally you can ride the rest of the NRRT to Nashua as an out-and-back.

Haystack grounds are peppered with huge radio and microwave telescopes, as well as some nice touches for passerby like mountain bike trails and an apple tree. The grounds are open to the public year-round (officially only on weekdays). The main lobby is open as well.

Hmmm, this is not normally what you find in the forest!

Twice per year, Haystack also offers "Open House" events where you can visit genuine science laboratories. The next one might take place in Spring, '24. The grounds are cool enough on their own that we say, why wait? A perfect fall foliage ride, for example.

BRIEF HISTORY

MIT Haystack Observatory was originally built in the 1960s by MIT as a radar facility with Lincoln Laboratory, whose mission at the time was to monitor the skies for Soviet missiles. The Haystack facility was separated from Lincoln in 1970 and now conducts open radio science research in astronomy, geodesy, space weather, and space technology. Haystack scientists were part of the Event Horizon Telescope team that recently produced the first black hole image. You can read more about the key scientific apparatus that you will see on-site by clicking here.

Photo Gallery: The Ride

Right in Ayer, you'll hop on the Nashua River Rail Trail.

Nashua River Rail Trail heading from Ayer towards Groton

Around Groton, transition to rolling country roads.

Countryside just outside of Groton
Martin's Pond Road (Turtles?)
Martin's Pond Road (Goats!)

Approaching Haystack, you'll need to briefly pop out onto Route 40 for a minute or two. Hug the road shoulder.

One minute on Route 40, notably busier

in your final approach (up a hill!) to Haystack, you'll pass the Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston main site.

Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston

And finally, there's the first radio telescope.

Approaching main entrance! First radome whets your appetite.
Photo Gallery: The Science
If the Eiffel Tower and the Atomium are world-class monuments, then so too are building-scale ionospheric science facilities (I couldn't resist making the sky pop a little in this one.)
Millstone Hill Geospace Facility (part of Lincoln Laboratory)

The Haystack observatory grounds are fantastic and undiscovered.

Another shot of the 37m radio telescope inside radome
Millstone Long Range Tracking Radar

We'd like to call special attention to a smaller detail: an on-site apple tree with an invitation to passerby to pick apples. It's subtle but fantastic example of what we at CycleToScience are advocating for our scientific sites: the creation of a deeper sense of welcome to places of profound discovery. We'd like to move beyond the classic lecture and exhibition type invitations and towards symbols like this one. Come have a picnic! Meditate a bit. Maybe hunt for the secret mountain biking trails?

Onsite apple tree
Another young tree, with radome in background.

Grab a tshirt or mug for sale in the main lobby if that's your thing, and head back to Ayer to catch the commuter rail home.

Sunset back on the Nashua River Rail Trail.