A CENTURY-OLD TELESCOPE AIMS AT THE STARS AGAIN FROM HOLDEN OBSERVATORY
In 1886, SU trustee Erastus Holden urged the 16-year-old University to add a second building to campus. A year later, Holden Observatory was dedicated in honor of the trustee's late son, alumnus Charles Demerest Holden. It featured an eight-inch refracting telescope built by Alvan Clark and Sons of Cambridge, Massachusetts, then the world's premier telescope company.
At that time Pluto hadn't been discovered, and there was only a primitive understanding of stars and the Milky Way galaxy, which was viewed as the universe. "The nature of various planets was a big mystery, perhaps the top scientific question of the day," says physics professor Peter Saulson. "When people asked themselves about the origin of the universe back then, that only meant the solar system. They knew almost nothing about the origin of the larger universe."
Today the universe is still expanding; we've even sent robots to explore Mars. Holden Observatory remains on the Hill, although it was moved from its original site in 1991 to make way for Eggers Hall. After the movean engineering feat that required three days of inching the 320-ton national landmark 190 feetthe observatory was like a movie theater with no film projector. The telescope, removed for the journey, was in hundreds of pieces in the Physics Building. Substantial restoration work was needed on both the observatory and telescope.
In a September rededication ceremony, the physics department reintroduced the University community to a spruced-up observatory and telescope. "Lots of people worked to get the observatory back in good physical condition for a new generation of students to use," says Eric Schiff, physics department chair. "It's an opportunity for people who haven't had the experience of using an observatory telescope to see beautiful things with their own eyes."
Andri Gretarsson, a fourth-year physics doctoral student, set his sights on the antique refractor when he first heard about it and volunteered to help refurbish it last January. Working with Louis Buda, technical services manager of the physics department, and machinists Charles Brown and Les Schmutzler, Gretarsson combed through rusty piece after rusty piece, sanding, polishing, varnishing, and painting. There were countless screws, pins, bolts, gears, counterweights, and more. The equatorial mount with its clockwork mechanismwhich turns the telescope to compensate for the Earth's rotationwas taken apart, cleaned, and reassembled. Some pieces, worn by time, were replaced by parts they crafted. "Lou didn't show me the room with all the pieces until I was well into the project," Gretarsson laughs. "He gently introduced me to it all."
Louis Buda, Les Schmutzler, and Charles Brown (left) of the physics department machine shop work with physics graduate student Andri Gretarsson to remount the antique telescope in Holden Observatory.
By late August Buda had the telescope pieced back together. The telescope and mount were returned to the observatory through the dome opening, courtesy of some skillful crane work. Gretarsson, who spent about 200 hours on the restoration, developed a true appreciation for the instrument and couldn't wait to aim it skyward. "This is a great telescope for looking at the planets, and it is excellent for teaching," says Gretarsson, a teaching assistant in Saulson's astronomy class last year.
That's exactly what the physics department had in mind. The observatorywith its dome fixed, interior renovated, and telescope remountedis once again a place where astronomy students can focus on the heavens. In recent years, star-gazing often occurred on the Quad with a portable telescope. "This high-quality telescope allows us to make observations we couldn't before," Saulson says. "I think people will be inspired by the fact that this is a very old instrument with an exquisite pedigree."
In fact, it was the telescope's makers who discovered Sirius was a double star and its companion was a white dwarf star, Saulson says. "They made this major astronomical discoverya connection with that kind of astronomical history has a resonance to it."For Gretarsson, readying the telescope for its third century was certainly a labor of love. "It's totally irreplaceable and probably hasn't been in pristine condition for 100 years," he says. "I hope it generates enthusiasm among students because it's great to be up there with the dome open and to see the stars."And all it takes is a clear night in Syracuse, "which happens at least once a year," Gretarsson laughs.