A visit to Yerkes Observatory

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The 40-inch refractor is — how do I say this? — big. // All photos by Sarah Scoles
Yerkes Observatory looks like it belongs in Rome (or at the very least, an era in which support of science was as strong as classical columns), though it is in fact located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. It has three large telescopes — a 40-inch refractor, a 40-inch reflector, and a 24-inch reflector. The refractor lives under a dome on one side of the complex, while the reflectors live in separate domes on the opposite side. Some smaller telescopes are used for educational purposes. I was fortunate to be able to visit Yerkes last weekend to give a talk at their monthly public star party, and they were nice enough to let me snoop around.

The 40-inch refracting telescope’s dome is 90 feet across and weighs 120 tons.

While the scopes are impressive — in fact, the 40-inch is still the largest refractor on this particular planet — more modern telescopes have surpassed them in sensitivity. But the telescopes are not sitting idle. The 24-inch, for instance, is part of a network of robotic telescopes called Skynet (but not that Skynet). Members of the Skynet collaboration — who range from professional to amateur astronomers to minor-aged students — can log in to a Web portal and submit observation specifications (exposure time, filters, etc.) and a target, and a Skynet telescope will take an image of their object and send it back to them.

Try to imagine someone building a façade like this for a modern astronomical building.

Yerkes was founded in 1897 by American astronomer George Ellery Hale. Hale had convinced tycoon Charles T. Yerkes, known for his financing of mass-transit systems in London and Chicago, to fund the development of the telescopes and the facility itself. In the pre-digital years, astronomers captured images on 170,000 photographic plates. And these astronomers were the icons of their day: Edward Barnard, Gerard Kuiper, Subramanyan Chadrasekhar — Albert Einstein even visited. Now, using the 40-inch refractor’s plethora of plates, scientists can analyze stellar motions over the course of decades. 

Yerkes currently is an engineering and educational center, in addition to an observatory. Engineers created the High-resolution Airborne Wideband Camera (HAWC) that will fly on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which was the topic of my talk. A 3-D printer lurks in the basement, popping out custom plastic prototypes for astronomy instruments. Teachers and students take part in hands-on research using the telescopes on-site and those on Skynet. 

I visited Yerkes Observatory to give a talk about my flight on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, for which Yerkes engineers built a camera.

Yerkes has managed to survive and thrive, as they say in psychology, because its researchers have adapted their idea of “observatory” as time has passed, perhaps providing a model for struggling science facilities everywhere. When the telescopes are no longer among the most sensitive, use them to teach the next generation of Einsteins. Use the longitudinal nature of previously collected data to study change over time in a way newer observatories can’t. Use employees’ expertise to build instruments for other telescopes. Most of all, make everyone jealous of your architecture.

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