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Pilgrimage to the Great Refractor

Posted by Louis Busby   09/30/2018 11:09PM

Pilgrimage to the Great Refractor

“Time always takes from us those things we hold most dear”

On March 7, 2018, the University of Chicago announced plans to wind down its activities at Yerkes Observatory.  According to observatory staff, the telescopes, observatory building and its light polluted location no longer allow the University to achieve its high standards and objectives in astrophysical research.  Another certainty is the $500K per year needed to maintain and preserve the observatory could be put to better use.  As a result, the University will close the observatory to visitors and researchers on October 1, 2018 with no prospects and no immediate plans to reopen. 

The Yerkes Observatory belongs to the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics of the University of Chicago.  It was established in 1897 on Lake Geneva in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.  The observatory houses all of the department’s activities and is situated on a 78-acre park site adjacent to Lake Geneva.  Most of the historical information about Yerkes Observatory can be found @ so I won’t elaborate on too much of it here.   Suffice it to say the inception of this great observatory and its giant 40-inch refractor telescope was the result of the hard work and dedication of George Ellery Hale (1868-1938) and his uncanny ability to play to the egos of wealthy tycoons in getting them to fund his astronomical endeavors.  We remain grateful to him for some of the great telescopes of our time.  The 60 and 100-inch Hooker reflecting telescopes at Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, California and his namesake, the Great 200-inch Hale reflecting telescope at Mount Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California and many others.

In the last month, I drove a to Williams Bay, Wisconsin to visit the Yerkes Observatory and the great 40-inch refractor telescope.  The trip was important to me because UChicago, which owned the observatory since it first went into service, was relinquishing control and responsibility.  Whomever the ownership of the observatory falls to in the future remains unknown. 

I arrived in Williams Bay, Wisconsin on September 16, 2018, with the intent of spending four days at the observatory to learn as much as I could and observe on the great refractor.  My wife and I stayed at a little Bed & Breakfast located less than a mile from the observatory property.  The next day we went to the observatory in time for the 12:30p tour.  There were only two daytime tours offered, one beginning at 12:30p and again at 2:00p.  Each $10 per person, barebones tour was guided by a staff astronomer or administrator and lasted about an hour and a half.  It was raining, and it seemed by the number of visitors in our group, that this was a rainy-day activity of mostly local folk.  Incidentally, the observatory stays locked all the time except during the authorized tours.  Only then do they unlock the doors and open the gift shop.  We had planned on staying four days, so I could attend more than one daytime tour and one evening tour where hopefully, I would get an opportunity to observe through the 40-inch refractor.  Plus, it would allow time to walk the grounds and study the unique and beautiful Victorian Era architecture of the main observatory building and its giant telescope domes.

Our tour guide opened the main entrance doors a little early, so we could come in out of the rain.  The twin foyers opened into a huge rotunda with a bronze bust of Charles T. Yerkes prominently displayed alongside an early pendulum astronomical clock.  There are two wings to the observatory, one leads to the 40-inch refractor dome and the other wing is dedicated to an observatory museum and leads to the domes for the 40-inch reflector (called the 41-inch to avoid confusing it with the 40-inch refractor) and a 24-inch reflector telescope.  Astronomer and administrative offices and a library are accessible along each corridor.  An adjacent facility (called the south building), houses a 14-inch Go-To reflector and a 9-inch Schmidt camera each under their own domes.

  After a description of the observatory facility and a brief history lesson, our guide directed us up a long staircase to the dome that housed the great 40-inch refractor. I took the lead as our guide opened the door and was the first in our group to take in the amazing view of the huge telescope before us. Our guide demonstrated the raising and lowering of the floor of the observatory that allowed observers to reach the eyepiece end of the telescope.

With the impending closure, most of the observatory’s prime gift shop retail items have long since disappered.  I did however score a couple T-shirts, some early photo reproductions and a coffee mug. Since I collect coffee mugs from famous observatories, it was a must to get one.

At this point, I had already decided to do the day tour a second time the afternoon prior to my scheduled nightime telescope viewing tour on the 40-inch refractor.  After this tour, I hung back so I could ask more pointed questions to our guide of the day, Richard Dreiser, a 38 year administrative staff member of the observatory.  As the other visitors pealed away, I asked Richard what an amatuer astronomer who had travelled all the way from N.VA had to doto get a more in-depth tour of the observatory and the other telescopes.  Richard, being in a very magnanamous mood, responded with a welcomed, “I have a little time, so I’ll take you around.”  This is just what I’d had hoped for.

I was able to talk Richard into a “behind the scenes” tour of the observatory backrooms, telescopes and the photographic archives. I videotaped most all of the tour with Richard using a little Hero4 GoPro camera I carried with me.  Richard gave me access to areas of the observatory normally reserved for administrative staff and astronomers. With the observatory closure imminent, everything seemed to be more or less in disarray, but we found areas that had not been visited by observatory staff in months.  

I hope I wasn’t annoying Richard when I asked him to open every box, cupboard and cabinet we came across in hopes of rediscovering something historically significant.  We did find a circa 1950 or 60s glass plate cameras that was used on the 40-inch refractor, several filar micrometers and even and old spectragraph reader. All of these rediscovered items were either tucked away in wooden boxes or on a bench in a back room with years of dust on them. There was alot of old photographic equipment scattered about including several old school photographic enlargers.  In the image archive, thousands upon thousands of 8x10 glass and film photographic plates were safely tucked away in labeled envelopes and stored in IBM filing cabinets.  Richard allowed me to use the light table to study a glass plate of Messier 92 a globular cluster taken by the 40-inch refractor.  This rare plate was one of 127,000 photographic plates stored in the observatory archives.

Over the course of our semi-clandestine tour, it was obvious to me that Richard was very proud of showing us all of the goodies he could remember--and a few that he didn’t, from his 38 years at the observatory.  In payment for our secret expedition,  I and another amateur astronomerv named John Gill who was visiting from South Africa also along for the tour, helped Richard load a small refrigerator and some tubs of personal files from his office into his car.  He and the other staff members were under a deadline to vacate their offices by the coming Friday and Richard appreciated the help.

On the evening of September 20 at about 10:15, our small group small started the 40-inch telescope observing experience. The weather had miraculously cleared giving us a good four-hour window for observation.  The attending telescope operators, Chuck Flores and Katya Gozman were very knowledgeable and provided plenty of telescope and astronomy knowledge. Katya was an astronomy student at the university and was volunteering her time operating the 40-inch telescope for public outreach.   Katya reminded me of Kate Micucci who plays Raj Koothrapali's quirky girlfriend Lucy on the television comedy series The Big Bang Theory.  Both Katya’s mannerism and her hesitant, apprehensive speech nailed the TV character to a tee.

We began our observations on the 40-inch with Saturn. The ringed planet was low on the horizon since the town of Williams Bay sits at almost 42 degrees north latitude.  The view of Saturn was unremarkable primarily due to the planet’s low elevation and poor seeing.  I have seen better performance on Saturn with my 12-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescope in my observatory back home.  Nevertheless, Saturn’s moons jumped right out at you and were quite obvious as very small disks with the Explore Scientific 40mm eyepiece attached to the big refractor.  Cassini’s Division was well rendered but not so the Encke Gap.  Atmospheric turbulence created sort of a false color rendition of Saturn that was a little distracting.  Viewing on a scale of 1-5, I gave Saturn a 2.

Next the great refractor was positioned over the crater Gassendi on the Moon.  Now this was very spectacular.  Detail of the crater was phenomenal and the amount of craterlets visible in Mare Humorum nearby was incredible.  The Moon got a solid 4 on my viewing scale.

The next object we observed was the planet Mars. The atmosphere had settled down a bit and some terrain features were obvious on the red planet, but not detailed. The south polar cap stood out amazingly and was vivid and relatively sharp during moments of good seeing.  I could tell that on a night of exceptional seeing, the 40-inch refractor's performance on Mars would be spectacular. Due to that night’s seeing conditions I gave Mars a solid 3. 

Following Mars, the Chuck and Katya slewed the telescope to the globular cluster Messier 15.  Now here is where the 40-inch starts to really perform. The stars in M15 were visually well resolved all the way to the core.  M15 is a small globular, not nearly as spectacular as Messier 13, but well worth the view through the 40-inch refractor.  The view of M15 earned a solid 4.5.

The finale object for the night was National Galactic Catalogue (NGC) 7662, commonly known as the Blue Snowball Nebula.  It is a planetary nebula located in Andromeda ~2000-6000 light-years distant at magnitude 8.6.  In terms of performance, the 40-inch telescope blew this object out of the water.  This super nova remnant had a very obvious electric blue color with a very prominent inner shell.  At its center, with averted vision one could see the small white dwarf star slowly burning away its remaining fuel.  I spent the most time on this object and I gave the view of the Blue Snowball a solid 5.

Over the course of the roughly 2.5 hours of telescope time, the elevator floor failed twice and the staff lost some time maneuvering the behemoth telescope to each of the objects.  I noticed that each time the telescope was repositioned, the operators would look up the R.A and Sidereal coordinates on an IPad and use the Declination and Right Ascension setting circles on the telescope mount to target the fainter objects--no “Go-To” capability here.  The operators would then verify the object was in the finder/guide scope and then use a hand controller to fine-tune the telescope so the object was centered in the eyepiece field-of-view.

After our observing session, I spent a little time talking with Chuck Flores and shared with him some pictures on my IPad of my observatory and Deep Space Objects I had photographed.  All the other visitors had left by that time and Chuck said I could see my own way out and just make sure the front door was locked as I went out. For a moment I stood alone in the hallway of this immense and grand historical monument of the twentieth century.

All things considered, the week’s events and my lucky tour capped with some unforgettable telescope time on a historically significant telescope in a renowned observatory facility made it a uniquely perfect trip.  So sad to hear now that this telescope and observatory will be closing and the history book slammed shut on one of the last great telescopes responsible for leading the United States and the University of Chicago into the twentieth century and to major discoveries and contributions in astronomy and astrophysics. The ghosts of George Ellery Hale, Edwin Hubble, E.E. Barnard, G. Van Biesbroeck, W.W. Morgan, many other astronomers and the observatory architect himself, Henry Ives Cobb will continue to walk these halls long after the doors have closed.