Cosmic Views

Photo by Max Catalano

Photo by Max Catalano

Nora McKeown

Perched on a hilltop at The Ridges rests the Ohio University Observatory. The dome-like structure was built in May 2017 to permanently house an historic telescope that the university has owned since the 1950s.

“It took about 10 years to come up with the money and the location,” says Doug Clowe, OU professor of physics and astronomy. “But [last year] we got to build the dome up on The Ridges and put the telescope in place up there.”

Funding for the observatory was provided by the Office of the Vice President and Provost, the Physics Department and the Astrophysical Institute and totaled $320,000.

The astronomy faculty chose The Ridges as the location based on its accessibility for students and minimal exposure to light pollution from uptown shops and campus buildings. Minimal light pollution is essential for a clear view of the night sky.

Originally, there were plans to build the observatory on Radar Hill, which rests in the forest past The Ridges and is protected from light pollution. However, the university worried about how difficult it would be for students to access an observatory at Radar Hill. The proposed site was about a two mile walk from campus, and this distance prompted the university to search for a new location.

“[The Ridges] was the one spot that we could find close to campus that we thought was ideal,” Clowe says. “It’s up above everything, but you have trees surrounding it. So, you block off most of the direct lighting. The only thing we really have to worry about are the football stadium lights, so we plan around [games].”

The observatory houses a refractor telescope produced by J.W. Fecker Co. in 1950. OU purchased the telescope later that year and placed it on the roof of the Research and Technology Center, where it stayed in a plywood shed for over 50 years.

In 2004 the roof of the Research and Technology Center was deemed unsafe for such a heavy piece of equipment, forcing the university to nd a new home for the telescope. is also gave the university time to make mechanical repairs to the telescope, which took on water damages and more during its 50-year rooftop stay.

The telescope was disassembled and refurbished by two mechanical system technicians at Ohio University, Doug Shafer and Mike Myers. OU’s Astronomy Assistant Thomas J. O’Grady says the two technicians made time to restore the telescope in addition to maintaining their normal work schedules, and the university saved a significant amount of money because of their work.

O’Grady has worked in the university’s astronomy department for 35 years and has extensively researched the Fecker telescope.

“It is not evident to me that they have ever made another great refractor…anywhere in the world since this one,” he says. “So, it’s the last of its kind.”

The telescope was manufactured at the same time as several other great refractors, so O’Grady says he is not certain that OU’s telescope was technically the final one to be produced. But he says that he believes it was one in the final batch.

“It’s an incredible, valuable instrument that the university owns,” O’Grady says. “As the years go on, it becomes an American treasure, and we should be happy to have it and have a home for it.”

A refractor telescope looks like a cartoon image of a telescope, Clowe says. Refractors are long tubes with an eyepiece at one end and a lense at the other. They are older in design and best for viewing the moon and planets within the solar system.

The other common type of telescope is the reflector telescope. Similar to refractors, the reflector has an eyepiece to look through and a lens at the other end. Reflector telescopes show the image after it has been reflected off a mirror and have an additional lens that creates the final image shown through the eyepiece.

“When you use lenses, you’re looking through two lenses, one is called the eyepiece and the other is the large lens at the other end,” O’Grady says. “…Overall, [OU’s telescope] is called a ten-inch refractor… A reflector telescope uses a mirror and you look through a lens on the eyepiece and it looks at an image that is magnified by a mirror.”

The observatory exists as a resource to allow as many viewers as possible to experience the awe and shock that ensues when looking at the night sky. On its opening night, people from all over the world came to look through the telescope.

O’Grady says 75 to 150 people visit on the free telescope nights as well, which are hosted by the astronomy faculty and students one weekend per month.

The observatory is primarily used by students taking Astronomy 1400, a nighttime observing class designed to familiarize students with observational equipment. However, According to the OU College of Arts and Sciences Forum, observers can see lunar craters, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter, Mars, star clusters or distant galaxies depending on the time of year and sky conditions.

“If no one has ever seen Saturn through a telescope, it is amazing to see it with your own eyes,” Clowe says. “[It] looks like a picture postcard.”