Wesleyan’s Astronomical History featured in Astronomy Magazine


Astronomy magazine has an in-depth feature in its October issue on Wesleyan’s astronomical history and the restoration of its century-old, 20-inch refractor telescope, just in time for the Van Vleck Observatory’s centennial observation this spring.

Telescopes like Wesleyan’s 28-foot-long, two-ton refractor had once been cutting edge, and a source of pride for dozens of American universities. But as they “staggered into obsolescence” over the past half century, institutions have had to make tough choices about whether to renovate or retire them. In 2014, Wesleyan hired Chris Ray and Fred Orthlieb of Pennsylvania to give its refractor a second life.

The story traces the history of giant refractors through the 18th and 19th centuries, and Wesleyan’s acquisition of its own telescopes, and how they were used.

astronomymag2“Astronomical research and the teaching of students would go hand in hand at Wesleyan, [astronomer Frederick] Slocum told his audience (at the observatory’s dedication). But in an age of giant telescopes, even a 20-inch refractor was only modest. Worse still, New England’s weather is notoriously dreadful for astronomers. To make an impact, the Van Vleck Observatory would have to focus on a single fundamental question. By collaborating with Yerkes, England’s Royal Greenwich Observatory, and a consortium of other schools, Wesleyan researchers would measure parallaxes–a way to gauge how far away stars are through the tiny displacements in their positions caused by Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun. The astronomers would find the distances to the stars, Slocum said–and that’s exactly what they did.”

Wesleyan’s refractor was used to work on this problem from the 1920s through the 1990s, and it trained generations of young astronomers during that time. “In the 1950s, popularizer Walter Scott Houston peered through it to write his ‘Deep Sky Wonders’ column for Sky & Telescope.

Read the full story, which features a six-page spread of photos taken by Wesleyan photographers Olivia Drake MALS ’08 and Laurie Kenney, here.