Stamford Advocate: Stamford’s ‘space age’ telescope removed and headed to New Mexico, making way for a new planetarium
STAMFORD — A telescope described as “a wonder of the space age” is moving away from its Stamford home of 57 years.
The so-called Gregory-Maksutov telescope was lifted from its usual resting place near the top of the Stamford Observatory on Tuesday morning, and carefully placed on a trailer. It will now make the roughly 1,900-mile trip to Magdalena, New Mexico, where it will be refurbished and placed in operation at the Astronomical Lyceum facility.
The mood of those who witnessed the extraction on Tuesday was hardly a somber one, however. That’s because the telescope’s departure signals a major milestone in the development of a planned 10,000-square-foot planetarium and astronomy center that will replace the dilapidated and abandoned observatory, which sits on the campus of the Stamford Museum & Nature Center.
“It’s truly going to be a world class gem for our city,” Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons said during a brief press conference before the removal of the telescope.
The telescope was lifted and removed from the observatory by Stamford-based crane operator Frank Compo & Sons, the same company in charge of installing the telescope in 1965.
Now that the 2,000-pound instrument is removed, the next step will be demolishing the decommissioned observatory, which was condemned in 2018 due to deterioration, including extensive mold.
Melissa Mulrooney, CEO of the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, said demolition would commence in December, and that work would begin on the new structure in the spring of 2023. Construction is expected to last about 16 months, with an estimated opening of fall 2024.
Mulrooney said potential supply chain issues have been discussed among museum officials, but that they won’t know the challenges until all of the materials used for construction are selected.
The budget for the project is around $10.5 million, said Mulrooney. About half, or $5 million, has been acquired from the state, including $3 million from the office of previous Gov. Dannel Malloy, with another $1 million coming from the city’s coffers. She said the center is pitching in another $1.5 million, meaning about $2.5 million to $3 million still needs to be raised.
The new center will feature three levels, including a 100-seat planetarium auditorium, two classroom spaces, a public outdoor viewing deck and a room housing both lunar and solar telescopes.
“This finally will bring back the signature that is our astronomy and science programming,” Mulrooney said.
The future astronomy center is only the second phase of the major renovations planned for the museum’s 118-acre campus.
The first part was completed in 2018, with the opening of the Knobloch Family Farmhouse, which includes an outdoor classroom, a cidery and a maple sugar house. Once the planetarium project is completed, officials will move to build a new museum.
While the Stamford Observatory telescope is leaving the city, the Stamford museum will still have remote access to the instrument’s imaging of the New Mexico sky one it is set up.
John Briggs, a telescope and observatory engineer with the Lyceum observatory, will lead the effort to install Stamford’s telescope at the new site.
He spoke briefly during the event and recalled his first visit to the Stamford Observatory half a century ago when he was a high school student attending a scientific symposium. That was a seminal moment in Briggs’ life, as many of the participants in the event turned out to be mentors and employers of his.
“It’s mind blowing to me to be back here 49 years later, because certainly as a young teenager visiting here, I could never have dreamed that I would someday be part of the team taking responsibility for the future of this telescope,” he said.
He described the Gregory-Maksutov telescope as “a wonder of the space age.”
“The people who built it were particularly gifted engineers who had a love of astronomy,” he said.
The telescope’s name comes from the two people who designed it. Russian optician Dmitri Maksutov was the creator of the 22-inch research telescope within the structure. John Gregory, a Fairfield County Astronomical Society member, designed its optical system, modifying the Maksutov design to convert the telescope into a wide-field camera.
Briggs said Stamford Observatory is well known among the community of telescope enthusiasts for housing the Gregory-Maksutov telescope.
“It’s very important that these orphan telescopes find appropriate homes and futures to inspire ongoing generations,” he said.