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Watch the Sky: Juniata's Antique Telescope Undergoing Restoration

(Posted March 12, 2012)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Physics professors are noted for thinking Big Ideas, like the origin of the universe, quarks, black holes. At Juniata College, the physics faculty does ponder those questions but they also notice the little things -- like an antique 100-year-old telescope gathering dust in a storage room.

Currently, two professors are overseeing the restoration of a 1908 Brashear telescope, which was purchased that year by the college after its maker, James A. Brashear, visited Juniata to give a lecture. The faculty decided to buy the instrument and Brashear himself delivered the 5-inch refractor telescope on a return lecture date.

"This is still a very precise and effective instrument, If we set it up to look at the night sky you can still effectively see the planets, the moon and the sun."
Matt Beaky, assistant professor of physics

Flash-forward a century or so to last summer, as Jim Borgardt, professor of physics at Juniata, is taking a group of students enrolled in Juniata's Remote Field Course (a summer science course that takes dozens of students on a tour of western states), on a tour of Arizona's Lowell Observatory. On the tour, the guide takes pains to show the group a beautifully maintained telescope.

"I immediately recognized it," Borgardt says. Although Juniata now has a successful observatory located in a perfect spot for celestial observation (it has little light and is on a hill) behind Brumbaugh Academic Center, the college used the Brashear telescope well into the 20th century. Over time, though, the faculty moved on to more modern equipment and the Brashear instrument was put into a closet.

Borgardt's first instinct was to buy a bottle of Brasso and shine the telescope to a high sheen. Luckily, he made a few phone calls first. Fans of the "Antiques Roadshow" know that it's always a bad idea to clean an antique, because it often causes more damage to the object and lessens its value. Which is generally what Borgardt learned from Bart Fried, president of the Antique Telescope Society.

"He told us polishing the brass would cause deterioration," Borgardt says. "Mr. Fried is working with us to find people who have parts and recommending lacquers to protect the finish."

Within the last few weeks, another faculty member, Matt Beaky, assistant professor of physics, has collaborated with Borgardt on the restoration project. Beaky, who joined Juniata's faculty this fall, teaches Juniata's astronomy and astrophysics courses and has experience working with new and old telescopes.

"This is still a very precise and effective instrument," Beaky says. "If we set it up to look at the night sky you can still effectively see the planets, the moon and the sun."

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to find another scientific instrument that can still do what it was designed to do 100 years after it was made," Borgardt says.

For now, Beaky and a student, Nick Stone-Weiss, a freshman from North Olmstead, Ohio, have parts of the instrument disassembled and are painstakingly cleaning parts and replacing several attachments.

""We've ordered a leather lens cap and one of the solar filter lenses has a crack in it which will have to be replaced," says Beaky, who will take a handful of Juniata students out to Lowell Observatory this summer for a five-day class. The Brashear telescope still has four out five original brass eyepieces. All four remaining eyepieces are housed in the original box from J.A. Brashear.

In addition to the antique telescope, the physics faculty will also have another older telescope to use as a resource shortly. This summer the Hickes Observatory will have a new 16-inch aperture telescope installed, replacing the college's 12-inch instrument (which is about 15 years old). The new instrument, manufactured by Meade Co., costs about $12,000.

"With the (new instrument) we will be able to see galaxies," Beaky says.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.