Telescopes and talks from Stellafane 2015

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Thursday, August 27, 2015

This banner welcomes visitors to the annual Stellafane telescope makers conference. // Phil Harrington
Recently, Contributing Editor Phil Harrington attended the 2015 Stellafane conference. Here is his account, arranged as a brief introduction and a series of captioned images.

More than 1,000 people attended the 80th Stellafane convention in Springfield, Vermont, held August 13-16, 2015. “Stellafane,” a contraction from the Latin phrase Stellar Fane, meaning “Shrine to the Stars,” is the oldest amateur astronomy convention in the United States, if not the world.

Stellafane is hosted by the Springfield Telescope Makers, one of the oldest clubs in the country. The club started in 1920 as an offshoot from telescope-making classes taught by local resident Russell Porter. Porter is considered to be the father of amateur telescope making and in many ways the modern hobby of amateur astronomy itself. Through local classes and global articles appearing in Scientific American magazine, Porter taught people that they did not have to spend months’ worth of salary to buy a telescope. Before Porter, owning a telescope was reserved for affluent members of society only. Porter showed how to make a Newtonian reflector from scratch for very little investment other than time.

Over the clubhouse’s front door hangs Stellafane’s iconic “Little Man.” // Phil Harrington
In response to the enthusiastic reaction to Porter’s articles, the Springfield Telescope Makers hosted the first Stellafane convention July 3-4, 1926, atop Breezy Hill, a location outside Springfield owned by Porter’s family.

The real stars of the show are the homemade telescopes entered in competition. Winning an award for your homemade telescope at Stellafane is like winning an Academy Award; there is no higher recognition as being a master of your craft. Awards are given in several categories, including mechanical design, craftsmanship, optical (homemade optics only), junior, and special awards. The craft of amateur telescope making was well represented this year. Check out the images for a look at some of the winners.

Saturday evening began with the entire convention gathering in the Pavilion, as a strong but swiftly moving deluge poured down outside. But it didn't dampen the spirits of the participants.

Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain: No matter what changes occur in my little nook of the universe, or in the world at large, Stellafane will remain unspoiled. In many ways, this place is exactly as it was when Russell Porter gathered together the first Springfield Telescopes Makers nearly a century ago. The spirit of Stellafane remains as it always has.

If you’ve never been there, please put it on your bucket list and join me, along with a thousand of your astronomical friends, at Stellafane next year. See you on August 4-7, 2016.

Held every year since, save for the years during and a few after World War II, Stellafane is first and foremost a convention of amateur telescope makers, or ATMs for short. If there is a center of the amateur astronomy universe, it’s on Breezy Hill. This was my 44th trip to the center of that universe, having attended my first convention in 1969. As always, Stellafane brings back memories from the past as well as offers a look into the future of amateur astronomy and telescope making. // Phil Harrington
Commanding center stage at the summit of Breezy Hill are Stellafane’s iconic pink clubhouse and Porter Turret Telescope observatory. The clubhouse was built in 1923, while the observatory was constructed 7 years later. // Phil Harrington
The turret’s reflecting telescope design, conceived by Porter, keeps the optics outside, while the observer stays warm while viewing from the inside. // Phil Harrington
During the day at the convention, the instrument is adapted so the Sun's image can be projected onto a screen. // Phil Harrington
In the coveted category of Mechanical Design, first place was awarded to Walter Campney for his 18-inch f/3.9 Newtonian/Dobsonian telescope, seen in this photo. The scope featured dew heaters integrated into the upper cage assembly, a versatile homemade focuser, a unique truss pole attachment design, and a novel wheelbarrow handle arrangement. The orange handles are seen in the background. // Carl Lancaster
Second place was given to this 10-inch f/4.7 Newtonian/Dobsonian made by J. T. Senghas of Bloomdale, Ohio. You Whovians — and you know who you are — should especially appreciate his design! Modeled after the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), the time machine and spacecraft from the British science fiction television program Doctor Who, this scope collapses inside out into a package measuring 9 by 17 by 48 inches for easy transport. // Phil Harrington
Third place for mechanical design went to Glenn Jackson of Warwick, RI, for this 14-inch f/4.5 Newt/Dob telescope. This photo highlights the instrument’s exceptional woodworking. // Richard Sanderson
As is often the case, winners repeat in multiple categories. For Craftsmanship, Campney’s 18-inch took first place, while Jackson’s 14 took second. Rounding out the field was Canadian Jean Paul Pelletier’s beautiful 10-inch f/6 Newt-Dob. If you look carefully, you can see that Pelletier fashioned globes of Jupiter into the centers of the altitude bearings. Notice how he uses the wood grain to mimic the atmospheric belts. // Phil Harrington
Special Awards were also given to exhibitors displaying non-telescope astronomical instruments. First place was given to Alan Sliski, seen here with his winning Foucault tester used to show optical quality of a mirror. The tester is outfitted with a camera that feeds the resulting image, called a shadowgram, onto his laptop computer for examination. // Phil Harrington
Second place in this category was awarded to David Leclerc from Methuen, Massachusetts, for a nicely designed and constructed binocular parallelogram mount and tripod. The motions were silky smooth in all directions thanks to Teflon bearings. // Phil Harrington
I love antique telescopes, and so my personal favorite entry this year came from David Groski. His fully restored Celestar 6-inch f/15 Maksutov, made in 1958 by the company J. W. Fecker, to me deserved “Best in Show.” What a beautiful job. (Footnote: Fecker’s line of telescopes were called Celestars, but they have no relation to Celestron, founded in the early 1960s). Notice how the eyepiece is located along the tube, nearly on-axis with the fork mount’s declination axis. That keeps the eyepiece at about the same height off the ground regardless of where the telescope is aimed. Here, we see the Stellafane judges assessing/admiring the instrument. // Phil Harrington
In the Junior category, Kaspar Renkin from New Fairfield, Connecticut, won for his 4.25-inch f/10 Newt/Dob. All of the telescope’s parts, including the vintage 1960’s spherical primary mirror from Edmund Scientific, were purchased at the Stellafane swap tables last year. // Phil Harrington
For many, the Saturday swap tables are a major highlight of the annual convention. Here, bargain hunters peruse all sorts of wares brought by fellow conventioneers. Whether you're interested in books; eyepieces; mirrors, lens, and other ATM potpourri; or complete telescopes, there is something for everyone. But if you’re planning on selling, you'd better get there early to claim table space. By 7 a.m., the place was already buzzing with activity. // Phil Harrington
Another major highlight of Stellafane is the wide variety of talks and activities offered throughout the event. If you’d like to get your hands dirty, there’s a mirror-grinding workshop. If you want to learn other aspects of telescope making, ways to improve a telescope you already own, or what to consider when purchasing a new telescope, there are talks and workshops for you, too. Astronomy columnist Glenn Chaple, seen here with the author, teamed up with well-known New York amateur astronomer Alan French to present “An Introduction to Telescopes for All Ages.” // Phil Harrington
Although Stellafane is first and foremost a telescope-makers convention, observers and astrophotographers can choose from a wide variety of talks, as well. Chaple, for instance, returned to present a talk about carbon stars. Other observing-oriented presentations included “Deep Sky Imaging with Small Scopes” by astrophotographer Al Takeda and “Advanced Observing Programs of the Texas Star Party” by Larry Mitchell. // Phil Harrington
Beginners have their set of talks, including a perennial favorite “A Dipper Full of Stars” by Richard Sanderson, curator of physical science for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Science Museum. Other talks geared toward newbies covered the history of New England astronomy and a walk along a scale model of the solar system. Starting behind the pink Clubhouse at the summit and based on the Sun being 12 inches in diameter, the walk stops at stations highlighting interesting facts and figures about each of the eight major planets. At this scale, Neptune is 3,232 feet or a little over half a mile from the Sun. // Phil Harrington
Children’s activities ranged from actually making an entire telescope under the experienced eye of Stellafane regular Steve “Stargazer Steve” Dodson, to presentations like “Starry Starry Night,” a series of activities centered around the constellations, and “You Light Up My Life,” focusing on light, including UV beads, spectroscopy, diffraction, and fluorescent rocks. All were very well attended. // Phil Harrington
The evening “Twilight Talks” featured telescope awards, some amazing raffle prizes, and longtime attendee John Bortle presenting the traditional “Stellafane Shadowgram,” which looks reflectively back on past conventions. The keynote speaker this year was Dr. Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the highly successful New Horizons flyby mission to Pluto. Stern retold the story of what it took to get New Horizons approved by Congress after four previously proposed missions never left the drawing board. He recounted the excitement of July 14, when the spacecraft successfully reached its target just 10 days after onboard computers went into “safe mode.” We were all captivated by his story and asked questions of him long into the night, even after the rain ended and the sky began to clear. // Phil Harrington
Although the sky did clear to a degree, low-lying fog still prevented optical judging. There were enough sucker holes in the overcast, however, for many to cautiously remove their telescope covers and aim toward the sky. But as you can see from this image of the Summer Triangle, much more localized clouds remained to block some of the Milky Way’s star clouds. // Phil Harrington
Later, fog came rolling in past Stellafane’s McGregor Observatory even as the stars tried their best to peek through. // Phil Harrington
Sunday morning dawned damp and foggy, another often-repeated Stellafane tradition. As the day grew brighter, I tore down my camp and got ready to depart. I was happy to find that at least my tent hadn't leaked. Well, at least not much! // Phil Harrington
As I walked the grounds one final time, I looked over the emptying observing field, the pink clubhouse, and the motionless Porter Turret Telescope, and pondered what this next year might bring before I again trod upon amateur astronomy’s most hallowed of grounds. // Phil Harrington

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