Physics Department Restores 67-Year Old Telescope
Reprinted from the K-State Collegian, 12/8/06
 

The Department of Physics might have one of the newest old pieces of equipment on campus.

First built in 1939, the 10-foot Perkin Elmer/Moffet telescope was once the pride and joy of Willard Hall, but when the department got a new telescope in the mid-1970s, the old one was disassembled and squirreled away.

For 30 years it sat, in pieces and dust-covered, in the forgotten department's depths.

"It was on its way downhill, basically," Russell Reynolds, physics machine shop supervisor, said. "It was set aside for the new telescope and left."

But the 67-year-old telescope recently has been reborn, and, thanks to Reynolds, again is exploring the cosmos.

"When I became involved with this instrument, it was torn into pieces and strewn all over," Reynolds said. "I was the one to bring in because I knew every component. I knew what all the components are and where they went."

Working in the physics shop, Reynolds said he has been making optical equipment for 27 years and used his experience to restore the telescope.

Despite a healthy amount of neglect, the scope itself was in generally good condition. The optics had corroded due to condensation and contact with the brass in the tubing, and several layers of paints had to be sloughed off.

In addition, a movable tripod was built to hold the telescope and the equatorial mount, the mechanism that, once aligned with the North Star, allows the telescope to be adjusted to compensate for the earth's rotation.

Working on the glass and tubing of a precision observatory-grade telescope requires more care and effort than Windex, sandpaper and nails. Reynolds said he has spent about 200 hours of restoration time to bring the scope back to full operation.

The results of the operation have caught a few eyes in the physics department, and although the future of the telescope isn't certain, Reynolds said it is going to be a part of the physics department in one form or another.

 

"That's really going to be up to the professors. Now that they've seen it in its restored condition, they want to keep hold of it for now," he said.

Spit and polish on K-State's old telescope is just one of the changes the physics department hopes to make. At the top of the wish list is a new observatory for both the new and old telescopes.

"We used to have an observatory on top of Cardwell Hall," said Bharat Ratra, professor of physics and adviser of the Astronomy Club. "It hasn't been maintained in quite a while."

Problems with the Cardwell observatory sprout from the growth of K-State and Manhattan in recent decades. Along with more people and more businesses come more lighting and more light pollution, which makes pinpointing faint objects in the night sky almost impossible.

"We're trying to find a place, somewhere in the Konza (Prairie Research Center), maybe, to build an observatory," Ratra said. "We're basically blinded on campus."

Ratra said grants and other proposals have begun for funds to construct the new observatory, which could cost anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000.

Kansas observatories, due to their relative isolation, often are well-suited to capture astronomical events. Ratra said many pictures from the most recent visit of Halley's Comet in 1986 were taken in western Kansas.

When it comes to building the observatory, Ratra said much of the work might be done by faculty to trim costs, and ultimately, their work is at least easier than current efforts to restore the Hubble Orbital Telescope.

"They have to go out there and do all their work in space," Ratra said. "We have it much simpler down here."