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Volume XXVII Number 1
Fall 2004

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Kirkwood Observatory
The Kirkwood Observatory on the IU Bloomington campus, ca. 1915
Photo courtesy IU Archives

IU Kokomo Observatory
IU Kokomo Observatory
Photo by Kendall Reeves

Telescope. n.--from Gr. viewing afar, farseeing; far off + a wanderer
Observatory, n.--from Latin observe, to abide by, to keep watch

 

Farseeing and Abiding at IU

by Lauren J. Bryant

For more than a century, the Kirkwood Observatory has stood close by the western edge of Indiana University's Bloomington campus. It's a well-known university landmark, but it's hardly IU's only observatory nor was it IUB's first. The latter distinction goes to a stubby structure constructed ca. 1898. It contained a four-inch telescope and sat near the corner of Seventh and Indiana streets. Deemed unsightly by fraternity residents across the street, the little observatory was later moved, and plans were made to construct an "attractive" and "neat" building, the Kirkwood Observatory.

Built in 1900, Kirkwood Observatory honors Daniel Kirkwood (1814-1895), the IU professor of mathematics who, in 1866, discovered the Kirkwood Gaps in the asteroid belt, and made many other notable contributions to astronomy without ever having access to an observatory himself. It's also a working observatory (renovated in 2000–01), used today for instructional purposes. A lower room houses a solar telescope. Students also use a 12-inch telescope in the dome for viewing, as do scores of public visitors who attend regular Wednesday night open houses to look at the moon, bright planets, and nearby stars.

By 1920, however, scientists found the observatory's equipment outdated. Professor Wilbur A. Cogshall, who was also director of the Kirkwood Observatory, had already begun work toward a new observatory, which would turn out to be an ill-fated facility.

Working diligently for years, Cogshall himself ground and polished the mirrors and designed the mounting for an unusual 24-inch telescope. By the time he finished, though, the university couldn't find funds to house the new telescope. Soon the Depression began, and observatory plans languished. In 1936–37, the IU buildings and grounds division finally built the Knightridge Observatory on a corner along the southeastern edge of Bloomington. Cogshall's design for the telescope mounting was flawed, however. It never operated properly, and newer designs for optics made Cogshall's telescope obsolete. It was eventually sold and the observatory abandoned.

In 1948, alumnus and amateur astronomer Dr. Goethe Link donated his observatory, located 35 miles north of Bloomington in Morgan County, to IU. The 36-inch telescope and observatory complex are still used today, but by the mid-1960s, lights had begun to interfere with the site. In 1966, IU established a new Goethe Link station in a remote part of the Morgan-Monroe State Forest. Initially equipped with a 16-inch telescope (now computer-controlled and affectionately known as RoboScope), the Morgan-Monroe station also houses a highly automated 50-inch telescope built in the late 90s, christened SpectraBot.

In 1994, WIYN--the Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOAO consortium--was established, giving IU a 17 percent share in a 3.5-meter (138-inch) telescope and a 28 percent share in a smaller .9-meter (36-inch) instrument, both located at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona (see story, Page 23). Years earlier, though, IU added two other observatories to its roster, one of them on wheels and the other featuring a heated dome.

"The little building on wheels," as Gerald Ruth calls it, was built in 1981–82 at IU Southeast. A 70-inch long, 14-inch wide telescope is attached to a permanent cement pier buried in the ground, with a wooden building on wheels built around it. "When we use the telescope, the building is pushed back by hand along an accompanying track," explains Ruth, a cartographer and professor of geography at IUS. ("Mapmaking applies to the celestial grid too," he says.)

The observatory-on-wheels is used only for solar work and viewing bright planets and the moon, after light pollution mostly destroyed the site. IUS astronomy activities now take place mainly at an 18-inch telescope installed in a darker corner of campus. Ruth and his students use this telescope for observing deep-sky objects and for photometry of pulsating stars, but Ruth reports with delight that he recently received a grant to help fund a new domed observatory, to be constructed close by the 18-inch telescope this fall.

For the last 25 years, Ruth has taught introductory astronomy to packed classes and hosted regular public viewings at IUS observatories. That's pretty much the same trajectory Frank R. Steldt has followed at IU Kokomo, where he scans the skies comfortably in a heated observatory dome.

"It's marvelous, very unusual," says Steldt, associate professor of physics. The IUK observatory dome uses a "shutter system" with a special ground-glass window installed over the viewing slot. "The slot is always closed," Steldt explains, "but the window gets positioned wherever you want to look." An enclosed dome means no waiting period for equipment to adjust to changing temperatures after the dome is opened--"Everything's ready to go as soon as you walk in," Steldt says.

Like Ruth, Steldt is excited about the arrival of a new telescope, a 16-inch instrument that can be computer controlled. It's a far cry from the telescope-on-a-tripod Steldt started out with some 30 years ago, when he arrived as IUK's first physics instructor and started hosting "star parties" on the campus lawn.

Today, those "star parties" have grown into introductory astronomy classes that routinely fill up one hour after registration starts. Steldt also holds numerous public viewings. During the Mars opposition in summer 2003, he says, the observatory was open for 17 nights and hosted 3,000 people.

Steldt's astronomical specialty is solar eclipses. He has pursued the sun's eclipse in Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, and Turkey. In 1994, however, the eclipse came to him.

In May of that year, an annular solar eclipse (when the moon blocks the sun, but leaves a ring of light uncovered) was set to pass directly over IU Kokomo--during commencement. Because annular eclipses leave harmful rays visible, it's not safe to look at such an eclipse directly. But how do you stop a crowd from sneaking peeks? To solve the dilemma, IUK handed out protective solar shades. They read, "My future's so bright, I have to wear shades."

Steldt missed the commencement viewing--he was in his usual spot in the observatory dome, tracking the eclipse through the telescope. "That was fun," he says, "and it still is."

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.

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