Telescope has eye to sky for 100 years

by Elizabeth Reinecke

Once considered a tool that would propel the University’s Department of Astronomy into the next century, the campus’ first telescope is celebrating its 100th birthday.
Originally on the banks of the Mississippi River, the 10-and-a-half-inch refracting telescope was once regarded as revolutionary by scientists and academics. The total cost for the device, its attachments and its construction was $10,800.
A letter sent from the telescope’s manufacturers in 1896 stated, “We were determined that it should be the best one ever constructed, and have spared no expense to reach that superlative point. We have never sent out a telescope that has seemed to us so perfect in detail as the one we are just completing for you.”
Now located in the observatory of the Tate Laboratory of Physics, the one-story-tall telescope is deemed an antique by today’s astronomy students. To build a device of equivalent standards today would be quite a task, said Juan Cabanela, a graduate student of astronomy.
“It was considered state-of-the-art. Telescopes are actually too expensive to build independently now,” he said. “However, we share time on several telescopes around the world.”
Kicking off the centennial celebration was an open house in December. Several members of the University community, former students and friends of the department attended the event.
Among them was Kurt Pinke, a 1947 graduate of the University. “I cannot believe the sophistication of the equipment today as compared to the equipment I worked on,” he said.
Pinke conducted research in a one-man department headed by the late Dr. Willem Luyten. Known around the University as “Mr. Astro-nomy”, Luyten made many advances in the field of astronomy.
The blinker telescope was one piece of equipment Pinke used for researching the changes in the position and image of stars. It required the user to turn a crank and then estimate with the naked eye the distance a star had moved.
The Automated Plate Scanner is the modern-day tool used to measure the movement of stars. “What’s been done recently is scanning the photographic plates with computers and digitizing the entire survey,” said Cabanela.
The centennial of the telescope is not only a celebration of the past, but also a look into the future.
Currently, the department is creating a database of astronomy information. It’s a powerful version of a directory where the user can retrieve images of star maps and certain photographic plates of the night sky.
Applications for the technology developed by the department are not limited to astronomy. Uses include image enhancing for detection of cancer in mammograms and for use in digital cameras.
In connection with the centennial celebration is a series of three professional scientific meetings. Among the world-renowned astronomers giving lectures were two University graduates who gave lectures in December. The next conference will be held in March.
Astronomy Professor Roberta Humphreys, one of the organizers for the conference, said “The University of Minnesota has a long record in the field of astronomy. It is a particularly high profile science for the public. We hope that it can continue to be a leader in astronomical research both for the benefit of students and for the state of Minnesota.”