Posted: Aug 11, 2012 at 1:59 PM [Aug 11, 2012]
Visitors to this year’s Ypsilanti Heritage Festival are invited to a Star Party at Eastern Michigan University on, Saturday August 18th. There will be planetarium shows at 7:30 and 9:00 PM, and a sky viewing (weather permitting) will be held at the Sherzer Hall roof observatory at 10:00 PM (Please note that roof access requires going up 16 steps).
Astronomy has a long history in Ypsilanti. Residents provided $600 in 1878 to purchase a telescope for astronomical observation at the Michigan Normal School (now Eastern Michigan University).
The 4 inch (diameter) Alvan Clark refractor telescope was a fine instrument in its day. Norbert Vance, Director of Eastern Michigan University’s Sherzer Observatory explains: “Alvan Clark & Sons were among the most highly regarded lens makers of their time. In 1893 the firm also created the University of Chicago’s 40 inch Yerkes telescope, which is still the largest refractor in the world.”
The Normal School telescope’s adventures began with a rail journey to Wyoming in 1878. University of Michigan astronomer James Craig Watson borrowed the telescope, hoping to discover a new planet, a planet so close to the sun that its presence might only be revealed during a total solar eclipse, when the glare of the Sun would be blotted out by the Moon. Such an eclipse was to be visible in Wyoming during the end of July, 1878.
Far from a hunch, the search for the mystery planet was driven by observations of the planet Mercury. The observed orbit of Mercury was found to be different from the theoretical orbit calculated using the physics of the time. The difference suggested the presence of another planet, closer to the Sun. The mystery planet was given the name Vulcan, after the Roman god of fire, a name that surely delights today’s science fiction fans!
The Normal School’s teIescope was successfully transported to a lonely rail stop called Separation, Wyoming. There it was set up to await the eclipse. The time of total eclipse was short, only three or four minutes. When it arrived, Watson searched quickly but thoroughly. He thought he had spotted it, but this later proved incorrect; Vulcan was not discovered. We know now, Vulcan never existed. The deviation in Mercury’s orbit remained a mystery until Albert Einstein explained it in 1915 with a new physics, the General Theory of Relativity.
The telescope did meet up with some distinguished company during the journey though. The great American inventor Thomas Edison was also in Wyoming for that summers eclipse, testing an apparatus for measuring infra-red radiation from the Sun. Norbert Vance says: “We can only speculate whether Edison observed through our telescope during that expedition, but there is a photograph from 1878 that shows Watson, Edison and others with it.”
After its adventures out west, the telescope continued in service, eventually moving to the roof of the old Pierce Hall on the Michigan Normal School’s rapidly expanding campus. In 1893 a powerful tornado swept through Ypsilanti, destroying the post office and doing considerable damage downtown. It also destroyed the observatory on Pierce Hall. “The telescope was tossed over 20 feet along the roof”, says Norbert Vance, “but the lens was not broken, and the telescope was recovered and repaired.” The telescope bears the inscription “Refurbished by F E Brandis New York”, the only visible battle scar from the tornado of 1893.
The telescope’s next stop was the rooftop of Sherzer Hall, constructed in 1903. There the trusty instrument helped launch the career of the future Director of the University of Michigan Observatories, Orren C. Mohler (A.B. 1929, Michigan Normal School).
Yet another calamity nearly claimed the telescope in 1989, when a fire gutted Sherzer Hall, destroying all of Eastern Michigan University’s astronomical instruments, except the 4” Alvan Clark telescope. “By luck, we had it stored in the astronomy lab in Strong Hall,” Vance says.
The tough little telescope from Ypsi survives to this day, and will be proudly on display at the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival Star Party.
The planetarium shows will be held in the new Eastern Michigan University planetarium, which opened in 2011. It features a custom 30 foot diameter sphere, and a full dome digital video projector with Dolby 7.1 surround sound. Full dome movies are used to illustrate the incredible universe. The planetarium seats 40, so arrive early. The event is free.