Thomas R. O'Donnell

Big scope in the deep woods: The fate of ISU’s Mather Telescope

In Uncategorized, University research on November 10, 2020 at 7:20 am
The Mather Telescope in its glory days.

The Mather Telescope in its glory days.

The approximately 45 acres of rolling woodland southwest of Boone that Aaron and Melissa Gillett bought last month are a haven for deer, wild turkeys, foxes and other wildlife.

Plus one white elephant.

After months of bureaucratic and pandemic-related delays, the Gilletts closed on a deal with the Iowa Board of Regents to buy the former Erwin W. Fick Observatory, a venerable facility where hundreds of Iowa State University students got their first taste of large-scale astronomy. The college abandoned it about five years ago. Workers stripped the steel-sided building of most electronics and metal for salvage, disposal or sale as surplus equipment.

But they left behind an enormous reminder of the observatory’s past.

Aaron Gillett (pronounced like the razor company) kindly showed me around the place on Halloween. It was my first time in the building.

The Gilletts own 28 acres and a home adjacent to the observatory property. They moved to the area about two years ago, choosing the tranquility of the Des Moines River valley to raise their sons, ages 4 and almost 2. “We want them to enjoy the outdoors,” unlike “a lot of kids getting raised behind a screen.” Gillett already has introduced the boys to fishing in a pond on their property and to mushroom hunting. The family takes frequent long walks through the land.

Fick Observatory near Boone, Iowa

The Fick Observatory on Halloween, with grass and weeds springing up around it. Somehow, my camera got set on black and white, but it looks kind of cool.

But the Gilletts’ other aim “was controlling our local space” – protecting its natural condition from possible development. “We really like the peace and quiet so we wanted to keep that out here.” The fact that the land included an astronomical education and research facility was irrelevant. “The building definitely is not what attracted us.”

ISU constructed the observatory in the 1960s, financed with a bequest from Davenport amateur astronomer Erwin Fick. You can read more about its history and why ISU pulled out in my 2015 post.

The Regents put the property up for bid and accepted the Gilletts’ offer in April.

It would all be routine if the sale involved just empty buildings and acres of land. But when ISU pulled out, it left behind the facility’s raison d’être: the Mather Telescope.

The instrument has a colorful history, starting with 1907 ISU graduate Milo Mather. The Clarksville native founded a successful engineering company in his hometown and applied his skills to his avocation: astronomy. He built his own reflector telescope, based on a massive, 24-inch mirror he produced himself.

Mather’s family bequeathed the telescope to his alma mater and ISU took possession in 1960. A few years later, with National Science Foundation support, the university commissioned the observatory near Boone – and a new instument built around Mather’s original mirror. More details are on this ancient (by internet standards) ISU physics webpage.

The Mather Telescope at the Fick Observatory, with the reflector telescope at the left and a huge counterweight at the right.

The Mather Telescope, dusty and derelict some five years after Iowa State University abandoned the Fick Observatory. Note the heavy counterweight at the right.

The telescope posed a very large problem when ISU closed the observatory. It is, as Physics and Astronomy Department Chairman Frank Krennrich told me in 2015, “a beast of an instrument.”

In April, ISU Surplus Manager Mark Ludwig said that his workers had removed electronics associated with the scope but debated what to do with the instrument itself. “We decided to scrap the telescope and asked the Physics/Astronomy Department if they wanted anything from it,” Ludwig wrote in an email. The department declined.

But “when we were trying to figure how to get the telescope out of the building we found out the roof was broken and did not open plus what it was going to cost to get a crane out to try and remove it,” Ludwig wrote. ISU officials shrugged and decided to leave it behind for the next owner.

So there the telescope sits, a behemoth in Aaron and Melissa Gillett’s newly acquired shed. It’s about the size of a battleship’s anchor – and perhaps just as heavy. Its now-outdated equatorial mount, Krennrich told me, required massive counterweights, visible in the photo, to balance the telescope’s main body.

Another look at the Mather Telescope. The optical tube is at right, pointed toward the heavens.

Another look at the Mather Telescope. The optical tube is at right, pointed toward the heavens.

A still-attached plaque provides its provenance:

Built by Competition Associates of Boston Inc.

Cambridge, Massachusetts USA

Type No. 46 02

Model No. 23-3208

Serial No. S3

Order No. 23805

For Iowa State University

Date December 1966

Mgr D C Brown

So an intact telescope, perhaps lacking electronics and the mechanism needed to open the observation bay roof? Not quite.

The Regents’ bid document says “the lenses have been removed from the telescope.” Ludwig says his team didn’t do it. The Department of Physics and Astronomy wasn’t interested. Gillett says he assumes the lenses are gone, since the papers said so, but hasn’t checked the telescope closely. So where are the optics?

It turns out, Krennrich said in an email earlier this month, that some may be in his department’s inventory. Staff scientist Roy McKay, who was involved in evaluating the instrument for removal, told Krennrich “some of the smaller components” were removed and “are available to our astronomy group.”

The Mather Telescope optical tube. Deep inside, probably at the bottom of the optical tube, is the mirror Milo Mather ground himself and that technicians later refurbished.

The Mather Telescope optical tube. Deep inside, probably at the bottom of the optical tube, is the mirror Milo Mather ground himself and that technicians later refurbished.

One thing is sure: The main mirror that Milo Mather built and technicians later refurbished – reported to weigh 300 pounds – is still there. But it is unlikely to ever see light again.

“For now it’s going to stay the way it is,” Gillett said, looking up at the dusty stargazing machine. “Obviously, it’s probably beyond a reasonable refurbishment” because of the expense. “But it’s a neat centerpiece as long as the building here is standing, I guess.”

Gillett is still deciding what to do with that building, which includes classroom space and the remains of a darkroom from the days of film photography. He may use it for storage.

While Gillett appreciates the relatively dark skies over his property, he’s not terribly interested in astronomy. “This probably isn’t an observatory moving forward. It’s more like an outbuilding on a farmstead.”

Nonetheless, outdoor concrete pads with posts for mounting telescopes, plus a small, igloo-like observatory dome, are still there. “We’ve gotten a little beginner telescope for the four-year-old to play with,” Gillett adds.

Perhaps the Fick site will become a place for discovery once again.

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