Stellafane '96 and the Fitz Refractor

by Ed Faits


The 13-inch Fitz Refractor on Breezy Hill.

By June of '96, the Arunah Hill crew had the great historic Fitz operational in a "test" mounting. Now what?

The 13 inch Fitz telescope was too historic, too interesting to NOT share with the rest of the amateur astronomy community. When Joe Zuraw started designing the temporary / test mount for the Fitz, transportation of the whole package to Stellafane was a design criteria. No small task, to design a mount solid and stable enough to allow a 15 foot steel tube to be pointed with sub-arc second accuracy AND be transportable without cranes or other special equipment.

Arunah Hill Days and the following week's Boy Scout barbecue/star party gave us confidence in the stability of Joe's design. Once the Telrad was aligned and the azimuth bearing lubricated, the giant old refractor could be used by a solo observer, and once found, an object could be tracked with just a push of two finger.

Still, questions remained. Would the lightweight materials survive the repeated assembly/disassembly and withstand the trek to Stellafane? Could we reassemble the mount on site, without Joe, who was off in the wilds of New Mexico with a Boy Scout troop? What if bad collimation and/or mount problems caused substandard performance? Would we be seen as the clowns who messed up an historic gem?

A few phone calls were made, a team assembled and money raised. Special Arunah Hill- Fitz/ Clark "Legacy of the Masters" golf shirts were made up.

On the Friday morning of Stellafane we met at Arunah Hill to load up. Joe Zuraw senior was the first on up the hill (I guess it runs in the family). The assembled team required two trips up and down the hill to transport the precious cargo to the staging area in the lower parking lot. The atmosphere was on of anticipation mixed with serious trepidation. Could we pull this one off, or would we fall flat on our faces? Time would tell. While waiting for the U-Haul, a light rain started falling.

Bob Osgood and I picked up the twenty-two foot U-Haul at the rental shop in Northampton. Once I got the empty truck up to 50 miles per hour I realized this was not going to be a "quick trip" up to Vermont. The mount and telescope were loaded into the big U-Haul. Steve Pielock didn't even try to pull the "stumble and drop the (empty) lens box" tick. With many hands (Steve, Bob, Chuck Musante, his son Tony, Craig Hill, John Davis, Gary Cislak, Mr. Zuraw, and me), the work went pretty quickly.

Still, there were a few moments of panic. The azimuth ring had warped badly while stored under the tarp at the summit, and one of the plywood leg joints had split. Were other load-bearing joints weakened? Would things be too warped to fit together? This could be a disaster. It was too late to do much about either problem, other than to send Craig off to purchase a tube of epoxy for "on site" repairs that duct tape couldn't fix.

Steve and Bob took turns as nervous wrecks... Steve took the wheel of the U-Haul, with Bob riding shotgun, and the rest of us convoying behind. It wasn't too far down Route 9 that Steve pulled off to check out a suspicious vibration. Fortunately the vibration had nothing to do with shifting cargo, so the caravan continued on. A couple of "refueling" stops later (one for vehicles, one for people), and we were on I-91 well into Vermont. Just past the Putney exit Steve was force to pull off the highway... something was dragging.

With the U-Haul rocking every time a truck whizzed past, Steve and Bob crawled under the U-Haul to inspect the problem: a dragging muffler. We sent John Davis, dressed in his bright red Arunah shirt, to flag traffic and try to get some of the trucks out of the right lane. Steve found the remains of a broken coat hanger... someone's temporary repair. Great job U-Haul does inspecting and maintaining these things. We found 6 feet of wire, and Steve and Bob lashed up the muffler, and we were again on our way.

Now we were in a bit of a race to get the mount together and the 'scope set up before dark. We reached Breezy Hill in the late afternoon, parked the truck south of the Pink Clubhouse, and went right to work unloading and assembling the mount. To our surprise, with a few minutes we had attracted a small crowd of spectators. Everyone was volunteering to help us out!

Working now a a well drilled team, everything fell into place with just a bit of coaxing, and we had the telescope operational by sunset... now we just need the clouds to part. While all of us waited for the sky to clear we gathered around the "hospitality suite" assembled by Gary Cislak. Complete with table, chairs, awning, lanterns, and refreshments, we all had a thoroughly enjoyable time as we sat in the shadow of the largest refractor to ever appear at Stellafane. I turned in around 11 PM without seeing any starlight, but a few hardy souls (lead by the indomitable Bob Osgood) claimed to have seen a couple of stars before sunrise. At least the forecast for Saturday was good.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny, and the mood of Team Arunah was high. Still, a potentially serious problem arose. Dew had penetrated the gap in the historic doublet lens. A morning in the sunshine did little to improve the situation. Fortunately we were in the midst of some of the most adept telescope makers in the world. With the generous help of the Springfield Telescope Makers, Steve disassembled and cleaned the lens in the sink of the Pink Clubhouse. Once the lens was replaced in its cell, Steve noticed that two of the three paper spacers had slipped out of position. To minimize handling of the lens, Steve decided to "live with" the problem until we could get the lens into a proper cleanroom facility.

Morning sunshine gave way to billowing clouds, then solid overcast. Still, a steady stream of visitors came by to look at the telescope and talk to us. Bob Osgood, Jim Zebrowski, and I had fun telling the story of the Fitz 13" telescope to everyone that would listen. I guess I must have fallen into "broken record" mode: at one point I noticed Joan Presz, sitting behind me, silently lip synching my recitation of the history of the telescope.

We must have talked to nearly every one of the 1,500 + Stellafane conventioneers as the massive telescope and novel mount served as the target of countless pictures. A few visitors even provided really useful information about Fitz and the early history of the telescope from its Dudley Observatory days in Albany. Steve Pielock was interviewed by Sky and Telescope Magazine. It was a great afternoon.

Most of us then adjourned to the amphitheater for the awards and evening talks. The massive transportable mount (designed by Joe Zuraw) took second prize for mechanical design. An impromptu ramble by astronomical pied piper John Dobson, and an interesting, though rushed, look at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence by Harvard Professor Paul Horowitz highlighted the talks. The SETI talk was occasionally interrupted by "laser pointer wars" and a flyover by the Russian spacestation MIR. By the end of the talks the skies were clearing rapidly. I re-climbed the hill to find a healthy queue already formed at the Fitz.

We showed off Jupiter, M-22, Comet Hale-Bopp, M-13, the Dumbbell and Ring Nebulae, and later Saturn, to the delight of the crowds. The line averaged 40 or 50 until nearly 3 AM! The Fitz telescope seemed to attract some of the biggest crowds on the hill, and the camaraderie and a steady flow of Perseid meteors kept everyone entertained. With steady seeing, the view through the telescope was well worth the wait. Even experienced observers seemed shocked that a 134 year old telescope could perform this well. Sure, there's a bit of chromatic aberration, a faint purple ring around brighter objects, but the resolution of this telescope is near diffraction limited.

Finally, with Venus and the winter constellations rising in the east, we "tarped" the telescope and turned in for a short night's sleep. Many of the Arunah crew bunked down at "Hotel U-Haul". Gary Cislak must have gotten up before sunrise (or maybe didn't sleep at all?), because the coffee was already brewed by our 7 AM wake-up call.

The team took down the telescope quickly and efficiently, loaded the truck, and headed for home. Well before noon the mount and tube were safely stored away for Arunah Hill Days '97 and the lens was headed off to the lab for cleaning and repair of the wayward spacers.

The whole adventure was a celebration of the maturing of Arunah Hill. We spread (and received) good cheer from the entire amateur astronomy community. It was a proud weekend for Arunah Hill, and I was grateful to have taken part in it.

NOTE: This article was first published in The View From Arunah, Volume 15, Fall 1996.

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