August 31, 2009

Professor Ned Ladd with the refurbished telescope. Below, brass work detail.

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By Sam Alcorn

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Built in the 1800s and aiding student research throughout the 1900s, Bucknell University's Clark telescope, completely refurbished and updated, is ready to excite future generations of star-gazing Bucknellians.

The 10-inch Clark refracting telescope, one of the premier scientific instruments when it was built in 1887 by Alvan Clark and Sons of Cambridge, Mass., has direct provenance to one of the University's earliest benefactors and for whom the institution is named — William Bucknell.

It was Bucknell who contributed $10,000 to construct and equip the observatory, which was dedicated June 28, 1887. As he told the Board of Trustees, "I present you with an observatory building, equipped with astronomical instruments, unsurpassed by any in the country."

In continuous use
Today, with funding provided by the Isaac J. Tressler Fund for Astronomy, Ned Ladd, associate professor of physics and astronomy, has been overseeing the refurbishing of the 14-foot telescope, which has been in nearly continuous use since it was installed on campus.

The 122-year-old telescope, which he calls a "beautiful black tube with brass fittings," has been completely refinished and includes a baked-black paint job that makes it glisten like it had just came off the Cambridge, Mass., production floor in the 1800s.

"The telescope was showing its wear," said Ladd of the decision to have it restored. "The project here involved several steps. There was a cosmetic restoration process where we took apart all the pieces of the telescope and refinished them and repainted them and reassembled them. The telescope really looks nice now. It's just a gorgeous scientific instrument."

High quality images
The instrument's optics have also been cleaned and realigned, yielding what Ladd said would be "really high quality focused images."

At the same time, the telescope with magnification capability of 300 times was brought into the 21st century.

"We put some money into the drives so that we can point the telescope very accurately and we can drive it across the sky," said Ladd. "Before this restoration, the telescope ran almost like a wristwatch. There was a little switch, you'd turn it on and the telescope would track slowly across the sky at a predetermined rate. If you wanted to point at a particular object, you would release some clutches, literally yank it around and point it at the object."

But that mechanical method only worked well if you knew where the object was in the sky.

Detailed engineering
"We decided what we wanted were accurate drives, so we spent time reworking the drive motors and that involved some pretty detailed engineering," said Ladd. "We also decided we wanted to have this telescope under computer control so that we could point pretty much anywhere we want with a couple keystrokes. Now, with a little touch screen, you can type in where you'd like to go in the sky. It'll slew to that position, settle down and begin to track."

He said the computer control helps to make the telescope more accessible to Bucknell's students.

"Now I think we're going to be in a situation where the use of that telescope will be very much like the use of the smaller telescopes we have out on the deck," said Ladd. "Once we've trained a student in using the smaller telescopes that we use in our regular classroom activities, that student will be in pretty good shape to use the large telescope as well."

As the restoration was being completed in late August, Ladd said they'd worked hard to "preserve the historical nature of the telescope. We've done that very carefully."

Facilities department
The University's facilities department has also been involved in the restoration of the observatory that sits at a campus high point at Fraternity and Stadium roads. The dome and room that houses the telescope sport new paint jobs.

In addition to the 200 or so students who use the observatory each year, Ladd said the observatory maintains a vigorous outreach program. Community family nights have been staged since 1997 and more than 1,000 members of the public, including church and Boy Scout groups, visit each year.

Its current home isn't its first. The observatory was originally located across campus — in the proximity of Roberts Hall. In 1962, when renovations and repairs were started, a wall collapsed and the entire structure had to be razed. By fall 1963, the telescope's new home at Fraternity and Stadium roads was complete.

Back in 1887, the same day that Bucknell presented the observatory to the University, the Board of Trustees voted to require students to study astronomy. (The requirement no longer exists.) Bucknell, no doubt, was pleased, given his sentiment in funding and presenting the observatory.

Bucknell's words
As he said in a hand-written letter housed in the University's archives, "The importance of such an addition to our already well endowed college facilities cannot be underestimated. It will be to the students the means of enlarging their ideas, by the study of the wonders of the Creator; of lifting their thoughts from the finite creature to the infinite Creator; of ennobling their minds, taking from them the narrow ideas of this worldly existence and elevating them to the contemplation of the 'spacious firmament on high, with all the blue ethereal sky, and spangled heavens' — and of the countless radiant orbs 'That sing forever as they shine, the hand that made us is Divine.'"

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