Westport Astronomical Society debuts new telescope
WESTPORT — A telescope is not a singular piece of equipment; it’s the sum of its parts.
The optical tube, the mirror and the diameter of the aperture all play a role in the visual experience offered by a given telescope. The parts can be switched out and upgraded independently, making it difficult to say with certainty the age of the Westport Astronomical Society’s recently replaced 12.5-inch Newtonian telescope.
“It’s a tough question, ‘How old is the telescope?’ Well, it’s got different parts in it,” society President Dan Wright said on a recent Tuesday. It had been just a few weeks since a new 16-inch telescope had been lifted up the rickety, wooden steps of the repurposed Cold War structure off Bayberry Lane and assembled atop the observation deck of the society’s headquarters since 1975.
“What makes that (Newtonian) telescope a telescope is the mirror. The mirror actually came from the original, and that’s 50 years old,” Wright said.
In those 50 years, the mirror had been redone and updated by Perkin-Elmer, the Danbury firm commissioned to build the optical components of the Hubble Space Telescope. The tube had been replaced as recently as 2004.
The Newtonian remained an impressive telescope, but in November 2010, Fairfield resident and society member Hewitt Gaynor offered to donate a modern, 16-inch Meade LX200, which retails around $16,000. The society decided to undergo the strenuous task of updating the facility, which was originally built by the U.S. military and has served as the society’s headquarters since 1975, to accommodate the new equipment.
“It literally took seven years to get that telescope up there,” Wright said.
A new, custom steel pier was built and painted, by donation, and a new set of electronics — the telescopes are positioned using computers — was installed. In early September, the Meade was finally installed for public use during scheduled viewings and Wednesday nights 8 to 10 p.m., weather permitting.
“The main factor is that it’s larger. It’s going from 12.5 inches in diameter to 16 inches diameter,” said society Vice President Bob Meadows, a retired electrical engineer who has been with the society for more than 30 years.
“It comes down to signal of noise. If you’ve got a wider aperture, you’re getting more signal, you can see dimmer objects. You can do more things with the signal,” Wright said. Atop the Meade sits a 102-millimeter apochromatic refractor that offers even wider views of the sky.
According to Wright, visitors to the observatory like to see bright images, similar to those they’ve seen taken by the Hubble Telescope. The moon, Jupiter and Saturn are favorites.
But for Wright, who has been with the society for 12 years, the most exciting stuff are more seldom-seen interstellar phenomena: “deep sky” stuff, as he calls it, like quasars, supernovae and comets that can be difficult to detect.
“When you’ve been in astronomy for a while, you flip out about the dim stuff. It’s tough to get people to understand the idea that what you’re looking at took 27 million years to arrive. That old, old light took all that time to get to you and now you’re seeing it,” Wright said.
The experience of stargazing gives Wright a sense of connectivity to the world.
“When you see the clockwork of the solar system, and you start seeing these very distant galaxies — it sometimes makes you feel very small. But you are part of this. You’re a cog. Maybe a very small cog, but you’re part of the big wheel,” Wright said.
Expanding on that idea, Wright — a theater major and former morning show disc jockey with no prior scientific experience — said he hopes to bring increasingly more people to the observatory to provide an introduction into astronomy.
“My big buzz is, when you have a big telescope and you’ve got somebody who’s never seen Saturn before and you hear nothing but a stream of swear words for about five minutes — you know you’ve done your job right,” Wright said with a laugh.
“We like to turn people on to seeing the skies,” he said.