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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Just in time to take aim at Mars, a refractor telescope has been installed in the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex.
The Salt Lake Astronomical Society, which owns the complex, will be making it available this weekend for anyone interested in viewing a close approach by the planet.
At the end of this month, says NASA, Mars will be about 43 million miles away. That's nearly as close as it ever has come in recorded history, the 34.8 million-mile pass of two years ago.
"This October's encounter . . . is similar," says a NASA news release. "To casual observers, Mars will seem about as bright and beautiful in 2005 as it was in 2003."
The telescope is a refractor built by Patrick Wiggins, measuring 200 millimeters in diameter by 4.35 meters in length, in the metric terms often used by astronomers. For those of us not as conversant with the scientific measurement, that translates to just under 7.9 inches by just under 14 feet. It's a big, powerful telescope, and those who have used it say it delivers stunning views.
According to Wiggins, media liaison for the society, the plan is to eventually replace the aluminum tube with an antique steel telescope tube constructed in 1915.
An interesting sidelight is that the "refractor house" built for this telescope boasts one of the world's few slide-off domes.
In the past, most protective roofs for telescopes were rotating domes with an opening. The dome would move as the telescope peered through the gap at the night sky. Later, amateurs began to favor a roll-off system, in which the entire roof slides onto supports and the telescope can swing easily from one target to another.
The dome was left over from the group's first building at Stansbury Park. It's a former battleship gun cover that was born again as an astronomical aid. The dome served its observatory for 25 years and was popular at star parties.
Eventually new buildings were constructed at the complex. The huge 32-inch reflector telescope, which was completed this year, features a slide-off roof. The dome became a storage area.
"It was stuck out in the weeds," said Wiggins. "It was kind of sad, having it sitting out there."
Then, in a brainstorming session, one of the SLAS members suggested using it atop the new refractor house -- even though plans called for a slide-off roof. "Someone threw out the idea, 'Let's make a slide-off dome,' " Wiggins said. "It was just a line that was thrown out as a joke.
"We all looked at one another. You could just see the light bulbs."
So the dome has been reborn yet again. Rescued from the weeds, it functions as an ornament to the roof. Although it slides off rather than rotating dome-fashion, it gives unmistakable notice to anyone driving by that this is an astronomical observatory.
The building was largely financed by Wiggins and is named in honor of his late mother, the Donna Pease Wiggins Refractor House. The telescope itself is named for a recently deceased amateur astronomer who worked hard on the complex's construction, Andy Bogdan.
Wiggins built the 200 mm telescope in the 1980s for the close opposition of Mars in 1988. Now it will be used for this month's approach, the closest that Mars will come for the next 13 years. Refractors have the advantage of sharp images, making them ideal for bright objects like planets and the moon.
Roger Butz, a Tooele resident who has observed Mars through the telescope, said, "It's beautiful. It's more than a dot. You can certainly tell that it's a planet. You can see a disk, rather than an orange star in the sky."
Mark Bloomenthal, a Salt Lake resident who is the chief instructor for the telescopes, said when he saw the moon through it, "the detail was just breathtaking. I don't recall seeing such clarity and detail in the moon before."
The complex will be open for free public Mars Watches on Saturday night and Sunday night, when the planet is closest. Both sessions will start at 10 p.m. and continue to midnight, assuming the weather allows.
The observatory complex is located at 15 Plaza, Stansbury Park. "The Mars Watches will also feature a telescope specially designed for use by those with disabilities," Wiggins said.
Clark Planetarium also is planning a Mars party Friday night, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. at the Bingham Creek Library. Carl Malaret, the planetarium's special events coordinator, said if clouds interfere on Friday, the event will be held Saturday night.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)