UI telescope reinstalled after restoration
URBANA — Though it hit a slight detour in Wheeling, W.Va., a historic telescope is being reinstalled at the University of Illinois Observatory this week after undergoing a $54,000 restoration.
The 117-year-old telescope was dismantled in May and shipped to Ray Museum Studios in Swarthmore, Pa., where it was restored to its original glory and outfitted with modern features.
The project finished about two weeks early but hit a snag on the telescope's journey home, said Professor Bryan Dunne, assistant chairman of the UI astronomy department.
Studio owner Chris Ray and his staff were transporting the telescope and its 1,465-pound mount in two cargo vans Sunday when one of the vehicles was involved in an accident along Interstate 70 in eastern Ohio, just a few miles outside Wheeling, Dunne said.
"Fortunately nobody was hurt," Dunne said, though Ray and one of his employees, Swarthmore student Yousef Alhessi, suffered bruises and were checked out at a nearby hospital.
But the van was too damaged to drive. And the second van, which was pulling a trailer with the telescope's mount, didn't have enough room for all the tools and telescope components in the other vehicle, much less four passengers, Dunne said.
So the crew had to leave some pieces and tools that weren't immediately necessary in a locked storage facility in Wheeling, he said.
The second van, driven by studio chief engineer Fred Orthlieb and Swarthmore student Sergio Rosas, arrived Monday night. Ray returned to Pennsylvania, and Alhessi took a bus to Indianapolis, where Orthlieb picked him up on Tuesday.
The telescope mount was lifted into place through the Observatory's roof as scheduled on Wednesday morning.
"It's been interesting," Dunne said after a crane from UI Facilities and Services had maneuvered the mount into place.
The other telescope pieces are still in Wheeling. Orthlieb planned to return to Wheeling after Wednesday's installation to pick them up, then drive back to Urbana.
"Nothing was damaged," Dunne said. "Everything was double-wrapped in industrial bubble tape," and the front of the van took the brunt of the damage from the accident, he said.
The telescope mount was removed from the Observatory in pieces back in May, but it was preassembled before being installed Wednesday. That made the operation a bit more delicate, Dunne said.
The mount is about 30 inches wide, and the opening is just 36 inches, leaving just a few inches of clearance on either side. Gear shafts had to be placed in exactly the right spots to connect the gears with the pier and mount, and that took some maneuvering, he said.
"Everything went great," Dunne said.
The middle of the telescope is already attached to the mount, but the two 7.5-foot front and back pieces — still in Wheeling — will be bolted into place later this week.
The restoration was the telescope's first since 1954. The telescope had developed a slight wobble that made photographs or accurate measurements challenging, and a gear froze over the winter so the telescope couldn't be locked into place.
The telescope was stripped and refinished to remove 50 years of dirt and grime and to give it a new high-gloss finish, Dunne said. Restorers replaced ball bearings, remachined the gears, cleaned out old grease, lubricated components, installed brass covers to protect exposed mechanical parts, replaced some of the old motors and brought it back to like-new condition, he said.
"It used to be kind of hard to push at first," Dunne said. "Now it's smooth. It's a 1,400-pound mount, and you can push it with one finger. It's so well-balanced and so well-lubricated. It's wonderful."
They also repaired several problems that hadn't been evident until the telescope was taken apart — such as a set screw that was too high, allowing metal to rub against metal every time the telescope moved.
The telescope will have a new data port to make it easier to transfer photos taken through the telescope to a computer, and a mount for solar telescopes or other accessories. Small cameras were installed to help pinpoint stars and position the telescope with more precision.
The telescope hasn't been used for research since the 1960s, as its 12-inch lens is one-third the size of modern telescopes.
But 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.
The telescope won't be ready for an open house on Friday, but the Astronomical Society has scheduled one for 9 to 11 p.m. on Aug. 9.
"The telescope has been gone for a few months, and the open houses haven't been the same without it," said UI graduate student Mallory Conlon, president of the Astronomical Society, who attended Wednesday's installation. "(N)ot only does it look like brand new, but it will move like brand new and give the club a lot of exciting and new observing opportunities."
The group Friends of the Observatory raised about $10,000 for the telescope project, and the UI Chancellor's Fund covered the remaining cost.
Facilities and Services crews took advantage of the telescope's absence to spruce up the interior of the historic 1886 Observatory, painting the floor, stairs, walls and dome, and installing new light-blocking window shades.
"They gave the whole interior of the Observatory a very much-needed facelift. It hadn't been painted since the 1980s. It looks beautiful in there," Dunne 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.
Friends of the Observatory formed in 2011 to preserve the 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.