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300 million-mile journey

observeFor Wittenberg astronomy students, the universe has grown at least 1,000 times larger thanks to the restoration of the historic 10.3-inch telescope in Weaver Observatory.

The telescope has been a first-rate teaching tool since it was installed in 1931, but with the migration of OSU’s 60-inch telescope from Perkins Observatory to Arizona, Weaver’s telescope is now actually one of the largest refractive telescopes in Ohio.
Before this fall, the telescope could scarcely reach outside the Milky Way galaxy, according to Daniel Fleisch, professor of physics. Improvements to the mechanism, however, combined with new digital camera technology, now allow students to investigate objects at least 300 million light years away.

But it was no easy task to repair the 70-year-old telescope as off-the-shelf replacement parts died with the maker, Robert Lundin. While working for the Alvin Graham Clark Company of Boston, Lundin and his father produced the finest telescopes in the United States between the 1850s and the 1930s, Fleisch said.
What made them state-of-the-art at that time were their optics, produced by the Lundins, who were legendary for being able to detect by touch imperfections in lenses that were beyond the best instruments of measurement of their day, Fleisch explained.

Wittenberg’s telescope was the first Robert Lundin produced after he left the Clark Company to go into business on his own. As a result the optics are spectacular, Fleisch said, but the mechanical mount is better described as a Yugo.
Before disassembling the historic instrument, Fleisch consulted with Chris Ray, a telescope conservator from Swarthmore College. Fleisch said he would think twice before altering a 100 percent original telescope, but Wittenberg’s telescope was already altered in the 1960s when a motor drive was added to counteract the rotation of the Earth (1,000 miles per hour at the equator).

So the scope was taken apart, 700 pounds of tubes, gears and counterweights. The key component was a 17-inch, hand-made worm gear. This is the heart of the mechanism, which connects the motor to the telescope and gives the instrument precision within a few seconds of arc, Fleisch explained. Lundin’s original 10.5-inch gear was much more inferior.

Combine the precise movement, the superb optics and current long-exposure imaging technology and, literally, the sky is the limit for Wittenberg students studying the heavens. The sky limits visibility because of the atmosphere, smog and city lights, Fleisch said. Nevertheless “no Wittenberg student in history has had a better view of what’s out there,” he added. “Our reach is 1,000 times greater than in the 1930s. With electronic photography, we can photograph things that they could only imagine.”

observeThe improved view has come just in time to meet increased student interest in astronomy, according to Fleisch. His popular survey course is supposed to be limited to 35 students, but usually ends up closer to 45. The physics department offers an astrophysics course, and this spring an Observational Astronomy course will be offered for the first time during which much of the class and lab time will be spent at the observatory.

In the United States, astronomy has gone through phases of popularity, spurred by contemporary advances, Fleisch explained. The rush to discover new planets began with the first modern scientific astronomical discovery, the discovery of Uranus in 1783 by William Herschel. Around the time Wittenberg was founded, scientists were using not just telescopes but mathematics to predict new heavenly bodies leading to the discovery of Neptune. Pluto was discovered in 1930, precisely the time that Weaver Observatory was being planned and built. Today the fascination with astronomy is probably being spurred by the breathtaking new visions of the universe captured by the Hubble orbiting observatory.

Fleisch wanted to enhance the telescope’s capability because he knew from his own years as an undergraduate at Georgetown University the telescope’s value as a teaching tool. The 12-inch Alvin Clark telescope at Georgetown meant a lot to his intellectual growth.

“ It’s what determined that I was going to go to graduate school for astronomy. When I see how students react to it here, again I see how useful it is.” Recently, he watched a student work for two hours to calculate the radius of the North Star (Polaris) using nothing but observations from the Weaver telescope. “When I see that, I am certain that antique is an instrument that we have to keep using.”

Fleisch is not finished with historic preservation at the observatory either. In a back room, he discovered an old transit, used to measure precisely when stars reach their highest point in the sky. It is in terrible condition, but it has historical value since an inexpensive global positioning system (GPS) can do the same calculation with greater ease and accuracy.

It’s that kind of enthusiasm that drives Fleisch, who recently moved from Columbus to Springfield. It is also what keeps him on call at all hours when students want to share their observations. “In this field,” he said, “you have to go when it shows up in the sky.”

—Jim Dexter
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