Research telescope has new home

The research-grade telescope that once searched the night skies above Hanford’s Rattlesnake Mountain moved into its new home Sunday near Wallula.

“Coming down” and “Keep your fingers clear” called out volunteers as an Apollo Inc. crane lowered the first piece of the telescope, the 3,000-pound mirror cell, through the opened dome of the new Pacific Northwest Regional Observatory.

By noon, the mirror cell was bolted in place in the observatory in the unpopulated hills south of Wallula Junction, and volunteers were ready to move onto lowering the almost 300-pound mirror and then the long telescope tube into place.

Next year, the telescope is expected to be fully operational again and available for education, research and community visits.

“This is fantastic,” said Ken Swanson, executive director of the Advancement of Science Through Astronomy, or AASTA, as he watched the equipment being placed in the new observatory.

“When we took it off of Rattlesnake, I knew this day was coming,” he said. “It was just a matter of time and a matter of work.”

In March 2008, the Department of Energy notified AASTA that it would need to remove the observatory from Rattlesnake Mountain on the Hanford Reach National Monument as part of an effort to clear the mountain top of most man-made structures.

The observatory with a custom-designed 0.8-meter Cassegrain telescope had been there since 1971, when Battelle Memorial Institute installed it for research. It was visited by thousands of people from academic users at universities across the country to NASA scientists searching for space debris.

With no more need for it in 1996, Battelle, which operates Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for the Department of Energy, leased the observatory to the nonprofit AASTA, and then donated it.

Battelle stepped in once again in 2008 and donated $250,000 to help save the components of the observatory. The telescope and the observatory were dismantled, hauled down the steep road from the top of Rattlesnake Mountain and stored at space provided by Columbia Basin College in Pasco.

Volunteers have been busy since then.

As AASTA members searched for a new home for the observatory and research telescope, the telescope was refurbished at CBC.

The telescope’s two mirrors were weathered from decades on Rattlesnake Mountain, Swanson said. They were sent to the Midwest to be recoated, and he’s predicting “phenomenal” performance from them now.

Winthrop Construction oversaw the refurbishment of the telescope, with Rob Parchen, a Columbia Basin College machine technology student, working on it.

“Those gear boxes are amazing,” Parchen said. “They are gears without teeth. They are smooth.”

He’s now working fulltime and continuing his schooling at CBC — with AASTA’s help — to get a bachelor’s in business management.

But Sunday he put his homework on hold to help with the installation of the telescope.

“I started it,” Parchen said. “Now I want to finish it.”

AASTA, after about 18 months of looking at potential new sites for the observatory from Dayton to Toppenish, settled on Whitman College’s Braden Farm and signed a use permit for it. It’s accessible to Whitman College in Walla Walla and also to CBC at about a 25-minute drive south from its Pasco campus.

The new site, at an elevation of almost 1,600 feet, cannot match Rattlesnake Mountain’s clear skies at 3,600 feet. But the night sky is darker at the new site and it’s remote enough — with only wheat fields and wind turbines nearby — that no nearby development is expected to soon pollute the night sky with light.

The educational tie to Whitman College also is a plus for AASTA, said Roy Gephart, AASTA board president.

“We really want to bring the facility into being a science education center for all of Eastern Washington,” he said.

Students, particularly in their junior and senior years of college, will be able to get a hands-on education equal to larger schools specializing in astronomy, he said.

It will be used in tandem with the Moore Observatory on the CBC campus, Gephart said.

The Moore Observatory is an educational observatory, but the Pacific Northwest Regional Observatory will be an educational research observatory. Because of its dark location and the larger telescope’s ability to collect more light, it will be able to see more distant and fainter objects, he said.

Apollo Inc. was hired as the general contractor to prepare the new site and put up the observatory, and it donated the crane and expertise to lift the equipment Sunday.

It took some finesse, said Apollo superintendent Milton Crowther. The telescope equipment is heavy, it is valuable and some of it is delicate. And it had to be lowered into place to align precisely with its 9-foot-tall forked mount.

“Today is a big milestone,” Parchen said after the first of the equipment was in place.

Testing and calibrating at the new observatory still must be done. But with the major equipment in place, Gephart is ready to move on to the next phase of AASTA’s project — writing grants and working with the community. AASTA will be raising money for needs ranging from building the viewing platform at the observatory to covering operating costs of the research facility.

AASTA also will be working to pull together a consortium of schools and research organizations interested in the observatory.

In the long term, AASTA plans to add a nearby building with classrooms, sleeping quarters for astronomers and storage.


(c)2012 Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)