Schematic images of the planned planetarium and astronomy center at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, expected to be completed in late 2024. (Photo courtesy of Stamford Museum & Nature Center)
Once described as "a wonder of the space age," a telescope that served as the centerpiece of the Stamford Observatory in Connecticut for the last 57 years was moved so that a new planetarium can be built at the site.
The Gregory-Maksutov telescope was hoisted from its long-time resting place Oct. 18, and carefully placed on a trailer for a 1,900-mi. cross-country journey to Magdalena, N.M. There, it will be refurbished and made operational at the Astronomical Lyceum facility.
The telescope's departure signaled a major milestone in the development of a planned 10,000-sq.-ft. planetarium and astronomy center that will replace the dilapidated and abandoned Connecticut observatory, which sits on the campus of the Stamford Museum & Nature Center.
"It's truly going to be a world class gem for our city," Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons said during a brief press conference before the telescope's removal.
Stamford-based crane operator Frank Compo & Sons, the same company in charge of installing the telescope in 1965, lifted and removed it from the observatory, according to the Middletown Press.
Planetarium's Construction to Start in December
Now that the 2,000-lb. instrument is gone, the next step will be demolishing the decommissioned observatory, condemned in 2018 due to deterioration, including extensive mold.
Melissa Mulrooney, CEO of the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, said demolition would start in December, and that work would begin on the new structure next spring. Construction is expected to last about 16 months, she estimated, with an opening planned for the fall of 2024.
Mulrooney said she and other museum officials have discussed potential supply chain issues but will not know the challenges ahead until all the materials used for construction are chosen.
The budget for the new planetarium project is around $10.5 million, she told the Press. About half, or $5 million, has been acquired from the state, including $3 million from the office of Connecticut's previous Gov. Dannel Malloy, along with another $1 million coming from the Stamford city coffers. Mulrooney also noted that the museum and nature center is pitching in an additional $1.5 million, meaning about $2.5 million to $3 million still needs to be raised.
The new astronomy center will feature three levels, including a 100-seat planetarium auditorium, two classroom spaces, a public outdoor viewing deck and a room housing both lunar and solar telescopes.
"This finally will bring back the signature that is our astronomy and science programming," she explained.
The future astronomy center is only the second phase of the major renovations planned for the museum's 118-acre campus.
The first was completed in 2018 with the opening of the Knobloch Family Farmhouse, which includes an outdoor classroom, a cidery and a maple sugar house. Once the new planetarium project opens, officials will move to build a new museum.
Old Telescope to Get New Life
Even though the old Stamford Observatory telescope has left the city, the museum will still have remote access to the instrument's imaging of the New Mexico sky once it is set up.
John Briggs, a telescope and observatory engineer with the Lyceum observatory, will lead the effort to install Stamford's telescope at the new site. He first visited the Stamford Observatory half a century ago when he was a high school student attending a scientific symposium.
"It's mind blowing to me to be back here 49 years later, because certainly as a young teenager visiting here, I could never have dreamed that I would someday be part of the team taking responsibility for the future of this telescope," he said.
Briggs described the Gregory-Maksutov telescope as "a wonder of the space age."
"The people who built it were particularly gifted engineers who had a love of astronomy," he said.
The telescope's name comes from the two people who designed it: Russian optician Dmitri Maksutov was the creator of the 22-in. research telescope within the structure, and John Gregory, a Fairfield County Astronomical Society member, modified the Maksutov design to convert the telescope into a wide-field camera.
Briggs said Stamford Observatory is well known among the community of telescope enthusiasts for housing the Gregory-Maksutov telescope.
"It's very important that these orphan telescopes find appropriate homes and futures to inspire ongoing generations," he said.
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