ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine’s historic observatory is slated for destruction, but its 111-year-old telescope will continue to help stargazers explore space.
“We want to continue to be able to share this important piece with the community,” Shawn Laatsch, director of the Emera Astronomy Center, said of the telescope that has helped thousands of students and researchers glimpse celestial bodies.
During a meeting on Sept. 19, the University of Maine System board of trustees approved a plan to demolish the old observatory.
UMaine relocated its turn-of-the-century observatory in 1933, moving the structure and telescope from the area near Fogler Library to the outskirts of campus, cutting down light pollution and giving students and researchers a better view of the night sky.
But as the university continued to expand, the campus swallowed up the tiny Historic Clark Telescope Observatory, today a deteriorating 330-square-foot wooden structure topped with a metal dome. The bustling Memorial Union, Collins Center for the Arts, multiple parking lots — and all the lights that come with them — now surround the building.
The more campus grew, the harder it became to see the stars.
In 2014, the university debuted the $5.2 million Emera Astronomy Center on the northeastern fringe of the campus. It’s home to the university’s new planetarium and the new Maynard F. Jordan Observatory, which houses a modern 20-inch reflecting telescope. It currently is the largest telescope in the state, but will soon be surpassed by a 22-inch telescope at Colby College, Laatsch said.
The new UMaine telescope can be operated remotely, set by a computer to look at a certain section of the night sky at a certain time. It doesn’t have an eyepiece and the images it takes are transferred to computers for examination.
It’s a far cry from the university’s original 8-inch refracting Clark telescope, which dates back to 1905. Alvan Clark was a renowned maker of optical equipment, best known for his work on telescopes throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
That telescope hasn’t been used in more than a year, according to Laatsch. The door on the dome of the Clark observatory is broken, putting the telescope out of commission until it can be moved.
He said that once the Clark telescope is set up in its new home, he hopes to bring community members attending a show at the planetarium over to peek through the telescope on clear nights.
“People still have a very strong interest in physically looking at the sky,” Laatsch said, and some feel more connected looking through an eyepiece than they do looking at a computer screen.
The new telescope in the Jordan observatory will continue to be used by students and researchers, but the Clark telescope will be used mostly for educating visitors.
The Clark observatory demolition is expected to cost about $12,000, and should happen before the close of the year, according to the university.
The Clark telescope will be be moved to a new building, roughly the same size with a flat roof that opens to expose the sky, which will be built next to the new observatory at Emera Astronomy Center. That project is expected to cost $427,000, and be completed in early 2017. Both the demolition and new construction will be funded using a portion of the gifts and donations that funded the construction of the new astronomy center.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.