Dreaming of the stars: Observatory dome returns to UMD as part of larger plan
MOOSE LAKE, Minn. — An observatory dome is a curious machine — one that appears static but is dynamic when put to use.
It's got a giant shutter that raises like an automatic garage door to allow for the telescope inside to peer out into the heavens.
And the dome itself, which looks like the rounded cap on a grain silo, will sensibly rotate so the shutter can open to any part of the sky.
The dome Glenn Langhorst has kept in good repair on family property in rural Carlton County is a prime example of its kind. With hardly any rust on its galvanized steel body, it's got many years left.
And with Langhorst, 60, facing retirement, a serious health concern and diminished use of own his private observatory, he is donating the dome back to the place from which he got it: the University of Minnesota Duluth.
"I'm happy to be able to pass my passion for astronomy to a new generation," said Langhorst, clad in winter coveralls, breathing frost and watching last week as contractors with AW Kuettel and Sons of Duluth dismantled, crated and hauled the works to a barn on UMD property north of the university.
There it will sit — temporarily, if Jay Austin, department head of physics and astronomy at UMD, has anything to say about it. Austin plans to rebuild the observatory, in part by reusing the old dome at its original location, where it once spent five unceremonious years (1975-80) atop Marshall W. Alworth Hall.
"We're saving something like $60,000-$70,000 by getting the dome back rather than buying a new one," said Austin, who estimated the cost to remodel the observatory and retrofit the dome to be $350,000 — a cost the university is willing to help strategize and fundraise for through its development office.
It's a doable proposition, given that the physics department has been banking its equipment allocation with the intention of buying a telescope. The building was originally outfitted to house an observatory on its roof — with a vibration-free telescope mounting base that carries down through four floors before it is anchored into the bedrock beneath the school.
But the department couldn't get the original telescope to ever work properly after the company that built it went out of business. The endeavor became subject to ridicule and was scrapped, sources said. Advanced-level astronomy students at UMD now do their observations from a professor's backyard observatory. But it's a solution that can't last forever, Austin said. The school offers introductory-level astronomy lectures which teach between 400-500 students, he said.
Those students don't get practical observatory experience, Austin said — and he would like to give them one. Instead of simulators or subscription services to remotely view telescopes from around the world, Austin wants to give UMD students the real thing.
"I think the students will get a much more compelling experience if they are looking through a telescope," he said.
In order for that to happen, a section of the building that has become student study space and storage will need to be updated. Preliminary drawings are done and include the requisite stations for computers and cameras that come with modern observatory-quality telescopes. There is an exterior patio for using portable tripod telescopes, and more built-out space inside for students to congregate.
Austin envisions students visiting the telescope in groups, and an observatory run by students who take a 1-unit course in how to manage it. He also said there would be hours set aside for community members and groups to use the observatory. Duluth was once home to a well-known community astral resource, the Darling Observatory in the Observation Hill neighborhood, from 1917 until the telescope was moved to UMD in the 1960s. But it's been without a public observatory now for going on 40 years.
"There is moral support from UMD for this," Austin said. "If somebody wrote a check next week, then I would push hard to have construction done this summer."
More reasonably, Austin said he expects things will unfold over the next one to two years.
For Langhorst, having the observatory has been a dream come true. He lists his passions as astronomy first, with teaching a close second. He's spent most of his career as a science, physics, astronomy and meteorology teacher at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. Before that he was the planetarium director at UMD, where he intersected with the timing of the dome coming down and was tickled to bring it home.
He recalled putting it up with family members, including his brother-in-law Keith Haglund, who joined Langhorst for last week's frigid disassembling of the dome.
"We didn't have all these contraptions," Haglund said, noting the crane truck.
"Nope," Langhorst said. "Just by hand."
In subzero weather, the contractors used bare hands to strip the dome of its tiniest nuts and bolts.
"It's what we get into," said supervisor Kevin Holappa.
For Langhorst, the observatory was used mostly as a social experience — something to be undertaken with family and friends or together with his circle of fellow astronomy buffs.
He recalled the first day he put it up.
"I only had half the panels up," he said, "and there was a thunderstorm rolling through. It was strong winds. I was very worried I was going to lose the dome before I even got it up. But it held. That's why I called it Thunderbird Observatory."