The Final Frontier



To go to the stars, first you have to do the legwork.  Actually, it’s more in the arms. Granted, rotating the heavy copper and wooden roof of the small astronomical observatory across the street from Burr and Burton Academy isn’t quite in the same league as lifting a large box of heavy rocks. Neither is it child’s play. But once the dome is rotated, opening a slit of sky that contains your target for the evening, it gets easier. Much easier, actually, thanks to modern-day G.P.S. and computer technology. Amateur astronomers from way back when used to have to know where to point their telescopes when out in the backyard engaging in a bit of star gazing. The moon? That was easy. Orion’s belt? No problem. But let’s say you wanted to zero in on Jupiter and its moons. Probably any follower of the movement of interplanetary bodies would have a pretty good idea of what quadrant in the sky the solar system’s planets were lurking during a given night, but now, at the BBA observatory that not long ago was a storage shed, the computer-controlled siting mechanism takes all the guess work out of it. Type in “Jupiter” on the miniature keyboard, and suddenly, as if possessed of a life of its own, the surprisingly small telescope whirs into action, twisting on its mount and pointing itself directly at the solar system’s largest inhabitant.

Peering into the telescope’s viewfinder, there’s the big fellow in all his glory, big red spot and all, straddled by a pair of its moons. The “red spot” is actually a fierce and intense wind storm, blowing at the rate of about 1,000 miles an hour, says Bill Muench, an English teacher at Burr and Burton who spends a lot of his free time being obsessed with outer space. That’s when he’s not playing guitar and singing in “Don’t Leave,” a local rock band, or running a basketball camp for area youngsters, or teaching English and psychology courses at both Burr and Burton and Castleton College near Rutland, or any of the dozens of ventures that seem to drift his way from time to time. Bill is a busy guy, and the excitement is infectious.

“When you look at Jupiter and see its moons and you realize Galileo (the pioneering Italian 16th century astronomer) saw the same thing and that was what got him in a lot of trouble—it was the birth of science, really—and you look out there and you have this connection with Galileo,” he said. “My goal is that all the teachers who want to use it (the telescope) can use it—I can train them.”

The fact that the observatory is back in the business it was designed for when it was first built in 1928, owes a lot to Muench, who together with Brian Gawlik, the school’s former communications department chairman (he passed away from complications of cancer in 2009) spearheaded a drive to breathe new life into a dormant astronomy club and find a new home for the soccer balls that used to be stashed there. It might have been convenient for the teams that played on the field just below the observatory a short sled ride down the slope in wintertime, but not so helpful when it came time for scanning the nighttime skies. The observatory was cleaned out and refurbished in the years prior to 2005, with an assist from that year’s graduating class, who made it their class gift to the school. All those efforts bore large fruit in 2009, when Lou and Clark French, two “friends” of Burr and Burton, donated funds to purchase a new state of the art telescope to occupy the spot where Robert Todd Lincoln’s old telescope—now back in its original home next to the manor house at Hildene—once enthralled an earlier generation of local students.

Most communities can’t even claim one decent built-for-the-purpose astronomical observatory, but Manchester has two. Robert Todd Lincoln was an avid amateur astronomer, and back in 1904, when the Hildene estate was being built as his summer home, the former railroad magnate and only surviving son of President Abraham Lincoln decided the place wouldn’t be complete without his own personal aerie for stargazing. Lincoln, an extremely successful businessman, wanted nothing but the best when it came to telescopes, and he got it—a eight-foot long behemoth custom made for him by the Cleveland, Ohio firm of Warner and Swasey. It cost $1,900 to build—approximately $45,000 in today’s inflation adjusted currency—a project that took six months. With it, Lincoln happily studied the summer skies over nighttime Manchester until his death in 1926.

At that point, his wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, presented the telescope to Burr and Burton along with the funds to build and maintain an observatory that was an exact replica of the one at Hildene next to the school. Over the years, the small brick structure saw no small amount of use.

After the Friends of Hildene acquired Lincoln’s former estate from the Christian Scientists in the mid-1970s, the school opted to return the original telescope to its former home. By then the Burr and Burton observatory had been using a newer telescope acquired in 1974, and would eventually acquire another one, a Questar 7, considered a Cadillac of telescopes that was a gift from Pawlet resident Bob Bushnell. The latest occupant is made by the Meade Co., and is startlingly compact—its tube is less than a yard long, a result, according to astronomer and telescope enthusiast John Briggs, of the modern 12-inch reflecting design it contains.

There are two types of telescopes, he explained one night last summer while working with Muench to align the telescope and make it ready for use by the general public. You have mirrored telescopes, and then you have ones that use lenses to bring in the distant objects you are looking at. In Robert Todd Lincoln’s day, lenses were the state of the art, but you would need a telescope that would measure about 15 feet in length to get same power of the 12 inch mirror in Burr and Burton’s new Meade, he said.

Besides, telescopes don’t magnify light—a common mis-perception—what they do is gather light to enable the observer to look into the heavens, he said.

“You don’t have to see into the deepest reaches of space to have a profound experience,” he said. “Just to see Saturn’s rings—many people don’t realize how easy it is to see space phenomena.”

This Meade telescope, Briggs said is “wonderfully powerful”—able to open up Saturn’s rings, explore the moon’s lunar surface and enable a viewer to study cloud patterns on Jupiter. He should know—as a member of Springfield Vermont’s famous Stellafane Club of telescope makers, he’s been around them a long time, and is currently out in Colorado working for a private foundation at another astronomical observatory.

Now fully aligned and ready for action, BBA’s new telescope has been drawing in students as well as those simply intrigued by all those celestial bodies up in the sky. Wintertime brings colder, clearer weather, and therefore better viewing conditions, Muench said one recent night when the temperature outside the small brick observatory dropped down into the chilly zone, and not much warmer inside it.

Tonight’s first “target”? Jupiter, of course; clearly visible this night in the southern end of the sky. Through the viewfinder the planet appears clearly, flanked by four of its moons: Ganymede, Callisto, Io and Europa. The last one is special, and not only because it holds more than twice the total amount of water as does the Earth, which presents the tantalyzing possibility it could possibly support some kind of biological life, Meunch said.

Europa also has a local connection, it turns out—Kevin Hand, a 1993 Burr and Burton graduate whose father, Peter Hand, works at Bromley and whose mother, Mary Beth, works at the clinic in Stratton, is deeply engaged in a NASA-sponsored project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, that hopes to launch a space probe to Europa in 2020. It would take six years to reach Jupiter, and another two before the spacecraft could go into orbit around Europa. That’s if the funding holds out, although it’s currently a high NASA priority. In theory, by 2028, scientists could be zeroing in on getting an up close look at Europa and all that water, which unlocks many possibilities, Hand said in an e-mail.

“The goal of this mission—to investigate the habitability of Europa—is truly fantastic and could revolutionize our study of the universe,” he said. “It could be that we find life on Europa and that it had a separate origin from life on Earth. Finding a separate, second origin of life on a world like Europa would be a key indication that life arises whenever the conditions are right and thus our universe could be teeming with life.”

And Europa isn’t really all that different from some of the other neighboring moons of Jupiter that appear like tiny dots or points of light in the telescope. Ganymede and Callisto also have large bodies of water—so do at least two moons of Saturn. But Europa’s water—covered in ice like all the rest—has a rocky sea floor, scientists have determined, unlike the ice that characterizes the ocean floors of the other moons, he said.

“Rocks are important to the chemistry of life, so water and rock need to mix if a world/ocean is going to be or remain habitable,” Hand said. “Europa might be special in this regard.”

That’s fairly heady stuff to ponder when squinting through the eyepiece at the observatory. But it’s only the start of a cosmological jaunt across the galaxy, as Muench moves on to have a quick look at Uranus, a relative neighbor of Jupiter’s, then on further still, to a study of the Andromeda galaxy. It’s one of the closest galaxies outside of our own Milky Way and on clear nights can be seen as a slight smudge in the sky with the naked eye. But now we’re getting into some really mind-boggling distances, Muench said.

The light we are seeing that comes from the collection of stars in Andromeda, traveling at 186,000 miles a second, has taken more than two million light-years to reach us. And Andromeda is basically just our next door neighbor in outer space, Muench said.

Turn it around, and someone with a telescope right this moment on one of the stars in the Andromeda system would be looking at the Earth of two million years ago, complete with all those dinosaurs, differently shaped oceans and land masses, and other forms of prehistoric life, he said.

The trek around the heavens continues, and the slit of nighttime sky exposed by the turning of the roof points west, directly above Equinox, where the double star Albireo, in the constellation of Cygnus, a scant 380 light years away, is perched. You need a telescope to see that there are two parts to Albireo; the larger one (Albireo A to astronomers) somewhat amber in color, the other, Albireo B, more bluish green. It’s pretty exciting stuff for Muench.

“Oh, you’re going to love this, this is so beautiful,” he said. “This is a sexy star—this is a nerd’s paradise.”

Oohs and aahs duly follow from the small group of semi-frozen astronomers as each takes his turn peering into deep space.

After a quick tour of the Ring Nebula, which is located in the constellation of Lyra, and first discovered in 1779, it’s time to close up shop for the night. That’s another one of the joys of the new Meade telescope—shutting it down and turning it off takes maybe a minute, unlike the extended procedure that takes closer to half and hour demanded by the Werner and Swasey telescope over at Hildene.

However, the Hildene telescope is still a very functional piece of equipment, and Muench has been, no surprise, one of the people at the forefront of getting that observatory back into a viable viewing platform, says Seth Bongartz, Hildene’s executive director.

Initially, when the telescope returned from Burr and Burton, it was stored for a time on the floor of the observatory because it didn’t have a stand to hold it, he says. The priority of the group that arranged the purchase of Hildene was to fix up the house and the grounds—the observatory had to wait until funds were available. Shortly after he took over the reins in 2002, Bongartz arranged to get the stand and Lincoln’s old viewing chair, both of which were still at Burr and Burton, as another round of renovation got underway.

The floor of the BBA observatory had been built over the base of the stand, so it required cutting out the floor and unbolting the stand from the underlying floor to get it to Hildene. It was brought over by the road crew of Manchester Village in a backhoe, Bongartz recalled.

“All the bolts were rusted—it took a lot of effort,” he says.

The telescope was refurbished and re-installed on its stand, and the cloth roof of the observatory restored. It gets used a couple times a year, and for now, that’s probably as much as is likely, Bongartz said.

“We like having it used, but because it’s an antique, you have to know what you’re doing,” he says. “Robert Todd Lincoln used it quite a lot, and he knew what he was doing.”

Back over at Burr and Burton, Muench is seeing an upsurge of interest among students in astronomy and outer space phenomena. Last winter, a group viewing of the Leonid meteor shower drew more than 100 of them to Manchester Recreation Park, at 3 o’clock in the morning, he recalls.

“These are kids who can’t get up in the morning for my class, but they are there for the Leonids,’ he says. “That tells me there’s some kind of interest.”

Manchester has some unusual assets for space exploration, even if it’s a long way from Cape Canaveral, the Jet Propulsion Lab or any of the other links in the chain of facilities dedicated to space exploration. Few other schools have an observatory, and the low level of light pollution means the viewing is usually pretty good. A former NASA astronaut, Jerry Carr, who piloted the 84-day long Skylab IV space mission in 1973-4, lives in Manchester. Author Andrew Chaikin, who lives in the area, has written seven books about space travel and the space program, including one where he interviewed all the astronauts who ever walked on the moon, Muench says.

“The dots aren’t all connected yet, but southern Vermont has quite an astronomy community,” he said. “If you understand what’s going on it makes it very exciting—I think that’s what astronomy is all about—when you understand what you’re looking at and what it means is more important than the picture you see.” ◊

Andrew McKeever is a freelance writer from Arlington