Local library gets an observatory

Posted by Matt Quandt
on Friday, May 22, 2009

Amateur astronomer Ted Schaar, from nearby Brookfield, Wisconsin — not far from Astronomy headquarters — sent us a letter about an observatory that's part of a public library in Pewaukee, a village just a few miles west of Brookfield. We're thankful to Ted for letting us share this great story with all of you:

Pewaukee Wisconsin library observatoryLike similar repositories, the new public library in Pewaukee connects people to the cosmos through its collections. Perhaps uniquely, it also does so with its own observatory. Pewaukee is about 20 miles west of Milwaukee on the shores of Pewaukee Lake. The name comes from a Potawatomi Native American word meaning “dusty water” or “lake of shells.”

The observatory's 12-foot Sirius Observatories fiberglass dome sits on the library's roof and shelters a 12-inch Meade LX200GPS-SMT. Visitors gain access by entering a secure door on the second floor and climbing a spiral staircase. The door helps isolate the telescope from the building's HVAC system, reducing turbulence and the loss of cooled or heated air.

The family behind Pewaukee-based Harken Inc. supplied the funding for the project. The company is well-known in competitive sailing circles for its yachting equipment. The Pewaukee Astronomy Club (PAC) operates the Harken Observatory. Club members volunteer to bring celestial objects to library patrons.

"Education is our mission," says Olaf Harken, who cofounded Harken Inc. with his brother Peter.

Harken Observatory telescopeAmateur astronomers and professional engineers Scott Berg and Scott Jamieson helped specify the equipment, including the Mitty Industries Inc. wedge. "To work reliably, go-to needs a great wedge, and this one can be precisely adjusted," explains Jamieson. The pier is a section of heavy-duty aluminum round stock normally used to make pulley sheaves for sailing gear. A Harken craftsman adapted the material for the observatory. "It's very sturdy," Berg says.

Maxim DL software and the Meade AutoStar Suite operate the system. The main computer for the system sits on a landing off the spiral staircase. Because of accessibility and safety concerns, only club members are allowed into the dome.

During public viewing sessions, a Starlight Express SXV-H9C CCD camera captures an image of an observing target and sends the image to the computer. The computer then relays the image to a monitor in the library’s Community Room where it is projected onto a large screen.

It's top-drawer technology galore, but the real fun is in the “oohs” and “ahhs” that come from library visitors who often are seeing live telescope images for the first time. Olaf Harken understands. He became an enthusiast while serving with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam during the 1960s. "We were under dark skies, and I was captivated," he says.

Later, as he helped his brother build their business, he joined the Milwaukee Astronomical Society — which has a number of telescopes, including a 25-inch, f/15, classical Cassegrain — and ultimately installed a 10-inch Meade LX200 in a dome atop a home. "Our friends and relatives get excited when we show them Jupiter and Saturn," he says.

When his wife, Ruth, a member of the Pewaukee Library Foundation, became involved in the effort to build a new library, he attended a meeting and suggested adding an observatory. "We were enjoying ours so much, I wanted to take it to others, and funding a telescope for the library seemed like a great way of accomplishing that goal," he says.

David Carroll, project architect with Zimmerman Architectural Studios of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, handled the design work. "We put the dome where the building's two rooflines meet," he says, "and integrated a heavy-duty metal deck into the infrastructure to support the pier." Shielded lighting is used on the building and grounds.

The PAC hosts a monthly astronomy session for the public. If clouds prevent using the observatory, a member gives a PowerPoint presentation. Sometimes the approaches are combined, as they were when club member Randy Buchwald gave a talk on exoplanets.

During the presentation, Buchwald displayed a sharp and steady live image from the telescope of the Orion Nebula, while he talked about the possibility that planets might be forming around some of the nebula’s stars.

PAC President Tim Walkowski says the observatory has showcased many objects, including several planets, the Moon, Andromeda, and other Messier targets.

Future plans include creating an instruction guide that will help library patrons use the telescope on their own. "We're a ways from that, but it's an important goal," Harken says.

Walkowski wants to enlist more volunteers to operate the observatory and to increase pubic showings. "From an equipment standpoint, we'd like to synchronize the telescope and dome motors, so the units move together,” he says. “This would be a big step toward a time when using the telescope might become nearly as easy as checking out a book."

Youth Services Librarian Jenny Wegener concludes, "We're all about promoting learning and exploration, and the Harken Observatory goes right along with our purpose — what a cool thing to have!"

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