Observatory repairs and renovations


Renovations are underway for the Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium’s largest telescope. The renovations will cost $325,000. 

Brian Murphy, observatory director, said this expense is slightly less than the original cost of $350,000 to build the observatory in 1954. 

Frank Levinson, a former Butler physics student, funded the project to renovate the telescope through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which Murphy said allows the telescope to be brought into the 21st century.

“The bones of the telescope are still here and work great,” Murphy said. “Times have really changed, though, and technology is advancing. This refurbishment will really get it up to research mode.”

The telescope’s refurbishment is made up of a few separate parts.

First, the observatory dome will automatically open and close and will have the ability to shut down—depending on the weather—to protect the telescope. High humidity or a possible rain shower would otherwise ruin the telescope.

“In a way, it is like protecting our investments,” Murphy said. “It will even override the observer. Anytime you have students involved—not claiming I am perfect—but students, they just don’t notice every single detail all the time.”

In addition, the telescope optics and mirrors are being refurbished. The renovations will also include a new instrument box attached to the telescope to better protect the camera. Murphy said this will allow the telescope to switch back and forth between public-viewing and research mode.

Lastly, remote telescope operation will be added. Students will be able to control the telescope movements from a separate classroom on their tablets or computers by tapping into the computers in the observatory that control the telescope. Murphy said students will be able to view and capture images of the sky without looking through the telescope.

“There is a certain allure to going onsite and using the telescope,” said sophomore Mike Pajkos, an astrophysics major. “At the end of the day, though, if you want accuracy and accurate measurements, you need efficiency over enjoyment. Overall, it doesn’t mean we still won’t be able to use it and let the public view through it.”

Students can use the new features of the telescope, but they are using these technologies at other observatories around the world. 

Butler participates in the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy program with 12 other schools. The program allows it to share three observatories in Arizona, Chile and the Canary Islands.

Murphy said students utilize the same remote viewing technology that is being installed on Butler’s telescope to observe at distant observatories.

Pajkos said he feels the money spent on this project is put to good use by equipping Butler’s telescope with the same remote-viewing features, 

“In the astrophysics world, as well as others, advancing machinery keeps growing,” Pajkos said. “In order to stay competitive with other observatories and telescopes, the renovation is necessary.”

The university will not pay for the renovations. The observatory does not generate much revenue itself. Instead, outside funding will pay for the updates. The university pays for 60 percent of the observatory operating budget, Murphy said, with the remainder coming from donations.

Once the telescope renovations are completed, Murphy said he wants to upgrade the planetarium inside the observatory.

Although they are still seeking funding for the project, the renovations would include a 180-degree IMAX screen, new seating and upgraded digital technology.

“I think it [the renovations] will be even cooler than the telescope,” junior Hunter Stephenson, observatory tour guide said. “People will be excited. As long as we have a good guide and a quality show, the change to the comfortable seating, because we have wooden benches now, will just bring more people in.”

While many students do not visit the observatory during their time here on campus, Murphy said he ensures the observatory is open to them. 

Students can schedule private tours and group tours for nearly no cost and can enter the building itself at almost any time of the day.

Public tours begin at 7 p.m. on most Friday and Saturday nights. It is $2 for students, children and seniors and $3 for adults. 

“This is sort of one on the icons of the campus,” Murphy said. “Holcomb put it here in town so the public would have an opportunity to use it. You can go see the Grand Canyon and see it, but how about seeing a galaxy light-years away? Seeing that with your own two eyes, that is what is amazing about this.”