UI telescope gets renovation

UI telescope gets renovation

URBANA — Though not quite as old as Galileo's model, the historic telescope in the University of Illinois Observatory is showing signs of age.

The 117-year-old telescope used by countless students and amateur astronomers over the past century is about to undergo a major restoration.

Crews have dismantled the telescope over the past two days in preparation for its journey to Ray Museum Studios in Swarthmore, Pa., where it will be restored and given new features. Several pieces too large to remove by hand were to be lifted by crane through the Observatory's domed roof on Wednesday morning.

"It's a precious instrument, but it's heavy. That's the challenge of working on these things," said owner Chris Ray, a museum exhibit designer, sculptor and restoration expert who has worked on more than 50 telescopes across the country.

The late Victorian-era telescope hasn't been used for research since the 1960s. Its 12-inch refracting lens is small compared with modern research telescopes, which have apertures at least a meter across.

But it's still an important tool for teaching and public outreach, said Professor Bryan Dunne, assistant chair of the astronomy department.

Introductory astronomy classes use it for observations every semester, weather permitting, and on the first Friday of every month during the school year the UI Astronomical Society hosts public open houses that sometimes draw several hundred stargazers. With its two axes, the telescope can be pointed anywhere in the sky.

"Thousands of students still go to the Observatory every year, walk up the stairs and look through it at the night sky," Dunne said.

The telescope also has historical value, he said.

The Observatory was named a National Historic Landmark in 1989 because of the work done there by astronomer Joel Stebbins, who pioneered the use of photometry to record the brightness of stars and other distant objects. A crater on the moon is named in his honor, according to a UI historical account.

Astronomers initially gauged the brightness of stars in relation to one another, and later used photographic plates to compare images. But neither was a true measure of light, Dunne said.

In 1907, Stebbins and UI physicist F.C. Brown were able to measure starlight electronically, using a selenium cell photometer, according to the historical account. Light hitting the cell allows an electric current to flow through it, and the brighter the star, the stronger the current, Dunne said.

The $54,000 restoration will be the telescope's first since 1954. The company will restore the steel telescope tube, mount and pier, as well as make mechanical repairs to gears and motors.

The telescope has developed a slight wobble that makes photographs or accurate measurements challenging, Dunne said. A locking gear froze over the winter, so the telescope couldn't be locked into place, he said.

It will also get a new data port that will make it easier to transfer photos taken through the telescope to a computer, and a mount for solar telescopes or other accessories.

Bulbs that now burn out fairly regularly will be replaced with LED lights. And small cameras will be installed to help pinpoint stars and position the telescope with more precision, he said.

The telescope will be painted and restored to its historic late 19th-century look. The original two-piece lens, which resembles of a pair of curved glass plates, will be cleaned and stored on campus to avoid damage.

"It's a very delicate piece of glass," Dunne said.

The group Friends of the Observatory raised about $10,000 for the telescope project, and the UI Chancellor's Fund will cover the remainder.

The Friends formed in 2011 to preserve the historic 1886 Observatory, which was initially built for surveying work by civil engineering students so they could triangulate their position using the stars, Dunne said. It was located on what was then the south farms, but the campus grew to surround it.

"I can't wait," said UI physics alumnus and astronomy buff Mike Svec, president of Friends of the Observatory and a professor at Furman University. "Even today, in a digital world where everybody's plugged in, it's kind of good to touch the real thing, to see and experience the real stars."

Dunne said many of his students come from urban and suburban areas, where they never get a chance to truly see the sky.

"It's mostly just an orange haze up there from the reflected light of streetlights. They've never looked at a telescope before," he said. "Here they get a chance to see what's out there in the night sky," from the relief of lunar craters and mountains on the moon's surface to the moons and stunning cloud bands that Galileo first spotted on Jupiter 400 years ago.

Some students, upon seeing the rings of Saturn up close, insist that it must be a fake.

"They swear that we've got some little Saturn thing hanging off the end of the telescope," Dunne said.

The telescope is scheduled to be back on campus by August and ready for the second annual Homecoming Observatory Open House on Oct. 25. Planners are keenly aware of the delays in the restoration of another campus icon, the Alma Mater sculpture, but they're confident of their timetable.

"Unlike Alma, it's been inside for the past 100 years," and that cuts down on the amount of weather damage, Dunne said.

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