Telescope Lessons

STANSBURY PARK, Tooele County – Undoubtedly it is the handsomest section of irrigation pipe in existence, this spectacular instrument that Patrick Wiggins built.

The pipe looks little like its brothers that carried on the family business of watering alfalfa fields. It has become a great telescope.

(Wiggins instructs the class in the use of the refractor in this view taken on Sunday.)

Named the Andy Bogdan Refractor (in honor of a member of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society who worked to construct the observatory before his 2005 fatal heart attack), the pipe is a polished red tube 3.25 meters (nearly 14 feet) long. It has gold-plated mountings, a carefully-balanced counterweight, 1915-era Clark pier, brass finder ‘scope, precision focuser and expensive lens.

Wiggins built it in the 1980s to fit that lens, identical to the 200-mm. (almost eight-inch) one in an Alvin Clark & Sons telescope owned by another member of the society; originally the newer lens was a spare but the owner sold it to Wiggins. Alvin Clark & Sons was the most renowned telescope maker in the early 20th century, and their instruments continue to deliver pristine views at observatories and universities fortunate enough to possess them.

The Bogdan telescope is housed in the Donna Pease Wiggins Refractor House, named after Wiggins’ mother. The housing is part of the society’s Stansbury Park Observatory Complex, SPOC. Wiggins donated the telescope and the refractor house to the society. Other elements of SPOC were built and donated by the group’s members, and are used by members in their own astronomical pursuits and in free public star parties.

Sunday afternoon, Wiggins stood beneath the telescope and explained its workings to about 20 of us students. We were there for the “Refractor Level 1” class, the first step in becoming qualified to operate the three powerful telescopes housed at SPOC.

Some who graduate from the classes go on to volunteer as operators during the public star parties. They also can visit SPOC for their own observing sessions.

My intentions are more selfish: some nights I will want to set up my own gear on SPOC’s sidewalks and plug into the observatory’s electrical supply. The sky is surprisingly dark there and I won’t have to fire up my generator in the desert.

As a student read an item from a checklist, Wiggins carried out the procedure for awakening the telescope. He removed cables and a chock securing the roll-off dome above the instrument, then started the motor that pulled the dome along a pair of rails, exposing the telescope to the atmosphere. Protective stuff bags (made to hold sleeping bags) were removed from either end of the refractor, showing its hardware.

He switched on the drive. This device keeps the telescope moving at the speed of the stars’ rotation, so that a target won’t drift out of the eyepiece.

Step by step, we watched as the telescope swung through its arc. Because it glides on a German equatorial mount, there is a trick to switching its aim from one hemisphere to the other, something about pointing the tube toward the dome and then moving it. We tried to absorb this technique, but Level 1 was a familiarization tour, while Level 2 will delve into the details.

Experienced observers like the club’s president, Dave Bernson, and observatory director Bruce Grim were present to add pointers.

Afterward, many of us repaired to a nearby eatery, continuing the society’s long tradition of “advanced training” — talk, fellowship and food following an astronomical event.

This may have been the largest SPOC class Wiggins has taught, among the many sessions stretching back to 1976, he said.

Wayne Clarke, a Cottonwood Heights resident who is the observatory training director, said that last year, about half the Level 1 students went on to Level 2. Then half of them went through the rigorous session to learn the ways of the 40-cm (16-inch) Ealing Cassegrain telescope. Half of these will take instructions on controlling the giant 32-inch reflector telescope, which is controlled by computer.

“That takes it (the number of practitioners) down quite a bit from the initial number,” Clarke said.

To earn that observatory key, I’ll need to successfully complete the free classes and pay a $25 yearly access fee.

One of the students — Bill Blevins, who lives in Sandy — said the classes are a great opportunity to have access to the telescopes. “The equipment is good and Patrick is a great instructor,” he said.

Blevins was impressed by “how much work has been done in actually building the observatory.”

I’m impressed too. I am grateful that these dedicated men and women of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society are sharing the beauty and science of astronomy with the public. And I hope to be among the few who actually complete all the training.

For more information about SLAS, including meeting times and how to join the group, CLICK HERE.

Leave a comment encourages a civil dialogue among its readers. We welcome your thoughtful comments.