Until the U. of I. astronomy department's 117-year-old telescope is returned to full working order, Mars will just have to sit in mid-retrograde.
Parts of the telescope, famous for its starring role in Joel Stebbins' globally recognized research in photoelectric photometry (star brightness), were packed up and carted away to a Pennsylvania conservatory May 22 for their first full cleaning and renovation work in nearly 60 years.
"It's taken several days to dismantle the whole thing," said Bryan Dunne, the assistant chair of the astronomy department. "They've taken it apart bit by bit."
Dunne was joined by campus onlookers as a Facilities and Services crane lifted the telescope's heavier parts, some weighing 700 pounds, out of the observatory's dome slit and down to the kid-gloved crew of Ray Museum Studios.
Some of the parts, such as the two elements of the 12-inch objective lens, were cleaned on site rather than risking damage from a long trip out of state. The rest of the parts will undergo extensive work at the conservatory workshop and are expected to return in time for the department's open house on Oct. 25.
"They will restore all of the components of the telescope and return it in great working order," Dunne said. "There's not one thing wrong with it - it's really a matter of little things that need to be addressed everywhere."
The owner of the conservatory, Chris Ray, made a visit to campus last November and estimated what renovations were needed. Although the telescope still functioned, he noted obvious signs of deterioration.
Corrective work will include lubricating various gears, servicing the motors, "bathing" the lenses and cleaning almost every inch of hardware to make it look like new. The telescope hasn't been renovated since 1954, though its operating functions have been upgraded over the years.
Dunne said the telescope still works well enough for stargazing, but that its regular upkeep had become less important over the years as research using Victorian-era telescopes gave way to the digital age.
"We continue to use it for astronomy classes and for outreach," he said. "It just became impossible at some point to have an expert on 19th-century telescopes on hand. It was a matter of someone volunteering to take care of it and then that person leaving or retiring."
The renovation project has been led by a group of U. of I. alumni, who announced last year they were forming a nonprofit organization, Friends of the U. of I. Observatory, to raise funds to save the aging observatory building and the telescope.
After getting blessings from the astronomy department to proceed, the group established an alumni database and soon had raised $10,000. That got the attention of the chancellor's office, which offered to add nearly $50,000 for the telescope work through the Chancellor's Fund. The fund comprises gifts from alumni and other donors.
"We're incredibly thankful for the chancellor's participation in this project," Dunne said. "It shows she (Phyllis Wise) realizes the historical importance of the observatory and is interested in helping preserve it."
David Leake, a 1983 U. of I. physics department alumnus, the director of Parkland College's William M. Staerkel Planetarium and one of the friends group's founders (along with physics alum Michael Svec), said the telescope work will help further fundraising efforts. The group's eventual goal is to assist in the renovation of the observatory building's dome, whose walls house the telescope and currently are crumbling from a weathering process called efflorescing that leaves behind a powdery residue on the walls. Becoming a friends member is as easy as making a donation.
"Awareness is as nice as cash sometimes," Leake said. "I think it's fantastic the telescope is getting worked on. I'm very happy for the telescope, plus it's much easier to raise funds when you have a project. We hope the project will draw even more attention to the building around it."
The Homecoming weekend open house, hosted by the U. of I. Astronomical Society, is another way to get the word out to prospective friends members. Last year's open house was the first held during Homecoming, and several hundred people showed up to be a part of it. The telescope repairs are expected to be completed by August.
Leake said the building renovation project would take much more funding. Just hiring a consultant to draw up plans could run in the six-figure range. Construction would involve much more money.
He said the group will meet with astronomy department officials in the coming months to discuss other issues associated with the observatory building, and how extensive any fundraising effort should be.
One of the major issues is how to best utilize the built-on east and west wings of the observatory, and whether wide-ranging renovation work could open up classroom space at the center of campus. Leake said those decisions will have to be made by astronomy department officials and that the friends group is meant to be supportive in any way.
"It would be easy to let it sit and fade away," he said. "But it's very neat to think about some of the great astronomers who have looked through that telescope. There is a real value to saving it."
Conservator possesses artist's sensibility, sense of awe
By Mike Helenthal
Chris Ray is a dabbler extraordinaire.
His company, Ray Museum Studios, is restoring the U. of I. astronomy department's 117-year-old telescope at its Swarthmore, Pa., studio.
But pinning down Ray's exact expertise is difficult - only because there are many options to choose from.
"I've always been good at mechanical things and I've been an amateur astronomer since I was 10," he said.
His company is known for repairing and renovating historical items, and Ray has successfully worked on more than 50 telescopes, most on university campuses, since 1983.
Ray also is an artist and sculptor, and designer and builder of museum exhibits, specifically the reconstruction of ancient cities. He sells his art online and he has built reconstructions for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and for the University of Pennsylvania Archaeological and Architectural Museum.
"I've always been interested in a lot of things," he is apt to say when you ask about the origin of his interests.
He credits his parents, who were landscape architects, for his lifelong love of learning. When he finds a topic he likes, he immerses himself in it. He was a physics and biology major at Reed College in Portland, Ore.
He doesn't consider himself an expert on telescopes. In fact, he said he has learned as much working with them as he has reading about them.
"The first step is to figure out how to take it all apart," he said.
The U. of I. telescope was dismantled and the pieces labeled and kept in separate bags to avoid confusion when it is put back together.
"This is something where you don't really want to find these extra parts left over when you're done," he said.
Most of the telescope work is being done at his studio with the assistance of students from Swarthmore College. The work includes lubricating components, cleaning, and stripping and refinishing the outside. He said doing the work there is more cost effective than doing it on site.
"We have our own machine shops and our own homes with our own wives and daughters," he said. "Fifty years from now (the telescope) should move as well as when we delivered it."
Ray cleaned the two-piece 12-inch lens on site to avoid damaging them in transit. He shows them off to outsiders with a sense of pride derived from a person who knows their extraordinary historical value.
The two lens components - one made of flint glass, the other crown glass - were first developed in the 1600s and are used in tandem to eliminate spherical aberration, or the rainbow effect that just one lens by itself would produce.
He is still amazed that someone discovered the technique.
"You never can underestimate the ingenuity of people," he said, a sentiment that could just as easily be tossed his way.
Jim Kaler, a professor emeritus of astronomy, was on hand May 22 to watch the telescope's disassembly. He said he has fond memories of the observatory and its telescope, listed as a National Historic Landmark and in the National Register of Historic Places.
By the time Kaler arrived in 1964, the telescope's most useful era of discovery was already behind it.
"Its real glory days were in the first part of the 20th century," he said. "When I saw it the first time I said, 'This looks like the place I'm going to be for a while.' Now it's like a daguerreotype, compared to today's electronics and the Web."
He said the observatory, now in the middle of campus, was once considered on its outskirts. He said he is pleased it is being repaired.
"It was clear out at the Morrow Plots," he said, "and it was much darker out there back then. Things were different - Green Street was just a swamp."
Kaler still occasionally will take students to the observatory to look to the heavens with the old technology. He said students are almost always awed by the experience. "The first response is usually, 'Oh my God,' " he said. "Then they'll say, 'That's not real, someone painted it on.' It's something you can see with your eyes and not on a computer screen."
Ray said he has never lost that sense of awe, either. "When these telescopes were first built there was this religious feeling from being able to look into the heavens and out to where God came from," he said. "They still bring that back for me."