By Shelley Widhalm Reporter-Herald Staff Writer
Russell Thye climbed a ladder to reach the eyepiece of the historic 24-inch telescope and, with one glove removed, squinted out at the stars.
“It’s amazing to be able to see constellations … I’ve never seen them before that close,” the Loveland man said.
Thye and his daughter, Alethia Thye, visited the Little Thompson Observatory on Thursday during a Loveland Classical Schools first-grade field trip to the Berthoud astronomical observatory.
The students viewed the sky from the 18- and 6-inch telescopes in the west dome, while a few of their parents opted to use the 24-inch telescope in the east dome. That telescope opened to the public Nov. 16 during First Light, the first official viewing through a telescope that coincided with the monthly public star night.
“It’s a very high-quality optical telescope with a very large field of view,” said Meinte Veldhuis, president of the Little Thompson Observatory, which is operated by the Little Thompson Science Foundation all-volunteer organization. “You can see a wide area of the sky.”
The Telescope’s History
The 24-inch telescope originally served the Apollo program, commissioned in 1963 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to determine the possibility of landing astronauts safely on the moon. The telescope then was used to select and document landing sites for other planned Apollo missions before being decommissioned a year later.
At that point, the telescope was turned over to the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, Calif., for graduate student research projects.
In 1994, the telescope became part of Telescopes in Education, a NASA-sponsored program, until June 2004, when the program ended due to lack of funding. The telescope was dismantled and moved out of its dedicated dome at Mount Wilson Observatory.
“It took three years to talk Caltech and Mount Wilson out of the telescope,” Veldhuis said.
In 2007, the Little Thompson Observatory acquired the 24-inch, 2,000-pound telescope from Telescopes in Education. The observatory’s volunteer staff engaged in discussions with Mount Wilson personnel to arrange for the telescope’s delivery two years later with plans to make it available to the public.
“There are not many observatories that are open to the public. Most observatories are used for research,” Veldhuis said.
Veldhuis wants to revive the Telescopes in Education program in Berthoud to make the telescope available to students worldwide through the Internet. The Little Thompson Science Foundation still needs to purchase an astronomical camera, which will cost $2,000 to $3,000, but already has the necessary software and control systems in place, Veldhuis said.
The Telescope’s New Home
To house the telescope, which was installed in October 2009, the volunteer staff had to build a second dome and add the necessary hardware and software control systems. The volunteer staff changed the telescope’s optical configuration from a Nasmyth-Cassegrain Reflector, or a narrow field of view, to a Newtonian Reflector, which has a wide field of view from a shorter optical pathway.
“I’m surprised to see such a major thing from NASA at a high school,” said Angie Kelly, whose daughter, Grace Kelly, was part of the first-grade field trip.
The observatory is housed on the Berthoud High School grounds.
Kelly was among a half-dozen parents to use the telescope to view a detail of the moon, the planet Jupiter, the Pleiades star cluster, the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion nebula. The children came in to see the Orion nebula, because the telescope was at eye level.
“It was cool,” said 6-year-old Haley Baca. “I can just see all the stars. I liked how they were blowing.”
John Buren, also 6, saw the stars in a different way.
“It was so beautiful. I was trying to see a heart,” he said.
The observatory hosts an average of 400 visitors a month and has hosted nearly 55,000 visitors since its opening in 1999.