Visiting the Yerkes Observatory 2005-Oct-28

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By Al Degutis

Yerkes aerial view (click on image for larger view)
Yerkes aerial view (click on image for larger view)

On Friday Oct 28, 2005, my neighbor Dave, his long time friend Roman and I went to Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin for a special observing session of Mars and a few other deep space objects. Mars made it's closets approach to Earth yesterday (Sunday Oct 30, 2005) and won't be this close again until the year 2018. Mars was not as close as it was during it's last approach on August 27, 2003. It was that 2003 encounter that prompted my to take Judy's advise and buy a telescope to enjoy the dark skies from our backyard after we moved here (outsided Woodstock, IL) only two months earlier.

About Yerkes

On the shores of Lake Geneva, in the small
town of Williams Bay Wisconsin, sits a
world famous, world class observatory;
Yerkes. Yerkes (pronounced Yer-keys) was
named after Charles Tyson Yerkes, it's prin-
cipal benefactor and a Chicago streetcar
magnate of questionable business practices.
Charles Yerkes was a man the press loved
to hate. Running from a shady background,
Yerkes came to Chicago in 1883 hoping to
find his fortune. Soon after arriving he took
control of a local streetcar company and
moved to expand it throughout the city. His
business deals with city politicians often left
his competitors shaking their heads in dis-
belief, and the press had a field day digging up
both real and imagined misdeeds.

Yerkes soon realized he must do something
to deflect the wrath of the press and the
havoc it was wreaking on his business enter-
prises. In addition, he desperately wanted
himself and his wife Mary to be accepted
into the social circles of Chicago's elite. In
the early 1890's, as was the habit of million-
aires trying to buy public favor, he began
donating large sums of money to civic causes.

Click here to read the entire story

Yerkes observatory, which houses the worlds largest refractor telescope (a 40-inch), typically only gives morning tours of the buildings and telescopes on Saturdays. Because of the close encounter with Mars, they were hosting two evening observing sessions: 1) observing Mars through small telescopes in the yard for $5, and 2) observing Mars and other objects throught their 24-inch reflector telescope inside their second largest dome. Dave, Roman and I had reserved spots to observe through the 24-inch telescope. Attendance was by reservation only and was limited to 10 people.

We went out to dinner together before hand at the Woodstock Square and then drove up together in Dave's Chrysler 300C, a very nice car. We arrived about an hour early and were allowed to hang out in the yard where the small telescope observing was taking place. We didn't look through the telescopes at Mars, giving the others a chance to enjoy the views. Instead we took in the dark, clear, steady night sky and the large domes.

David and Roman checking out the displays at Yerkes
David and Roman checking out the displays at Yerkes

While hanging out in the yard, chatting about the facilities I spotted a beautiful, bright meteor (approx magnitude 0) that started just east of the zenith and headed west about 40-50 degrees. We decided to spend the rest of the wait inside to warm up before we went into the dome where we'd be exposed to the mid-30F degree temperatures. Inside there were displays of the construction of the building and domes and the observatories history. But the real eye candy was the elaborate architectual detail adorning the walls, pillars and ceiling. Alan Solomon, a Tribune staff reporter, hit the nail on the head with his description in a recent story: "The architectual detail, a mix of shapes and symbols, are at once ornate and baffling."

Yerkes Observatory's 24-inch reflector and 6-inch finderscope as seen from the east of the dome
Yerkes Observatory's 24-inch reflector and 6-inch finderscope as seen from the east of the dome
Around 10:30 CDT, Richard Dreiser, tour director, led us up to the dome housing the 24-inch telescope by climbing 39 steps of a spiral stairway. The 24-inch telescope is a Boller & Chivens f/13.5 reflector. It features a rotatable main tube, useful for polarization measurements. Although the group was originally going to limited to 10 people, we had 17 people attending this session. Due to the number of people, Mr. Dreiser had to split us into two groups that alternated turns on the observing platform. The observing platform would be stressed when being raised with all 17 of us, plus Mr. Dreiser, on the platform.
Albireo by Nick Howes (not taken at Yerkes)
Albireo by Nick Howes (not taken at Yerkes)

We started by observing Albireo a popular double-star that has a nice contrast because the larger star is blue and the smaller one is yellow. These two stars are so close together that they appear as single star to the naked eye and through binoculars. Ironically, Mr. Dreiser pointed out, we were doing our observing using an "inexpensive $80 eyepiece from Orion Telescopes and Binoculars" because the scope typically has a CCD attached, not an eyepiece. Dave, Roman and I joked that we should have brought our own eyepieces. Next time we will.

After the first half of the group observed Albireo, we switched spaces allowing the other group on the observing deck while we waited on the observatory floor. We continued this procedure of trading spaces to observe other objects. Around 23:00 CDT, Mr. Dreiser was joined by Martin Jurczak, a high-school student volunteer that was out in the yard showing Mars to visitors.

Yerkes in Danger

Late at night, if you listen closely,
especially the closer you are to William's
Bay, Wisconsin, you'll hear an familiar
sound echoing, "Danger.. Danger Will
Robinson." But this time, it isn't young
Will that's in danger. It's the Yerkes Observa-
tory and it's historic telescopes, building
and domes. The University of Chicago, which
owns the observatory and property has accepted
bids from parties interested in purchasing it.

The university is believed to have received an
offer as high as $10 million from a developer who
has luxury homes and a European-style spa in
mind. A $4.5 million offer has come in from
Aurora University, which runs the George
Williams College campus nearby.

For the latest information check out the
Save Yerkes Observatory website
or one of the following:

M57 (the Ring Nebula) was our second target. Roman thought he glimpsed the center star, but Dave and I were not able to resolve it. Other targets included M15 (open cluster), M76 (the Little Dumbell Nebula) and of course Mars.

Mars... well Mars looked as large as the full Moon to the naked eye. It was the largest view I've ever seen of Mars, but that's not saying much.. I don't now if it was the size of the aperture plus the barlow plus the eyepiece (an inexpensive 30mm from Orion) but it seemed to lack contrast to me. Dave thought the problem may have been being out-of-focus. We were able to see shadowed features in the center forming a V shaped bird in flight with a curled wing. Later, using the Sky and Telescope's Online Mars Profiler, I was able to identify the feature we saw as being Syrtis Major and surrounding area. We were not able to detect the polar ice caps. Click here to see images of Mars by amateur astrophotographers

Dave (left) and Roman (right)
Dave (left) and Roman (right)

After observing Mars, the telescope was pointed at M42, the Orion Nebula, a beatiful view in most telescopes. I observed it through the 6" refractor that was the 24-inch telescope's finder. It provided a good view. Observing through the 24-inch provided a great view, possibly the best of the night for me, but how can you go wrong with M42.

At this point, shortly after midnight, Mr. Dreiser collected the observing fee and saw everyone out. Dave, Roman and I asked if we could stick around a little longer to do some additional observing. He had no objection since Martin was planning to stick around to capture some images through the telescope on his pocket digital camera. We chose some targets, visually observed them, then Martin would snap a few images.

The 24-inch Boller & Chivens f/13.5 reflector as seen from the observing deck as seen from the east of the dome (the blue bars are safety guards around the raised observing platform)
The 24-inch Boller & Chivens f/13.5 reflector as seen from the observing deck as seen from the east of the dome (the blue bars are safety guards around the raised observing platform)
With just the three of us, Martin and eventually Mr. Dreiser after he returned to the dome, we truly got a tour of the sky. Dave suggested some nice targets including M33 and M35 amongst some other. With the light gathering power of the 24-inch some of the details of M33 were visible.

We had to call an end to the session shortly after 01:00. Being the tallest of the group, I assisted in putting the lense cover on the 24-inch and the 6-inch finder. The dome was closed up and we snapped a few pictures.

Despite the cold weather it was a wonderful time, especially the final hour. We thank Richard Dreiser and Martin Jurczak for their graciousness in sharing the wonders of the night sky with a a stellar piece of astronomical hardware in an amazing location. In the shadows of the great astronomers that observed at or visited Yerkes, including Edward E. Barnard, Sherburne W. Burnham, Gerard Kuiper, Edwin Hubble, George Ellery Hale and Carl Sagan, to mention just a few, Dave, Roman and I were honored to participate in a brief observing session at this historic facility.