Observatory’s RORO almost ready to go

TUPPER LAKE – For years, the Adirondack Public Observatory has been a local nonprofit group educating people about the night sky, holding events and raising funds. It’s even had storefront space on Park Street, but that served mainly as office and classroom space.

But with the opening of its roll-off-roof observatory, or RORO for short, this summer, the APO will become what it has always intended to be and what its name implies: a physical space for locals and visitors to observe the night sky.

APO officials are hoping to complete and be ready to open the RORO later this summer.

In advance of that opening, APO founder and Chairman Marc Staves gave the Enterprise a tour in mid-June through the site next to the Little Wolf Beach. The main structure had been constructed, most of the wiring was in, and the APO was just waiting for a few final fixtures.

The telescopes

The main room of the 832-square-foot RORO is an open space that will have four pillars, with a telescope affixed to each.

At first glance, it looks like the concrete floor is one slab, but Staves explained that there is a concrete cylinder under each telescope, poured separately from the rest of the floor, using expansion joint material. That material will be taken out, and the gap will be filled with rubberized caulking.

“These piers are completely separate from the building,” Staves said.

The idea is to keep the telescopes completely still. If they were sitting on a concrete floor that was one big slab, they would vibrate every time anyone walked across the floor, but this way the rubber will absorb vibrations.

A customized steel pier will be fixed onto each concrete cylinder, and each telescope will be attached to its own pier. The piers were being manufactured by Jeffords Steel and Engineering in Plattsburgh when the Enterprise toured the facility.

Each telescope has its own story. The first and biggest, the Everest telescope, is a historical one donated to the APO by the son of its builder. According to a page dedicated to the telescope on the APO’s website, it was constructed by A.W. Everest in Pittsfield, Mass., in the 1920s. After his death in the ’60s, his family donated it to a private school where it was supposed to have an observatory built for it, but instead it lay in storage and was vandalized. The family took it back and kept it safe in storage until, in 2006, they read about the small group trying to build an observatory in the Adirondacks.

APO members joined up with Clarkson University students to restore the telescope, and it won first place in the antique restoration category at a 2007 Vermont conference for telescope makers.

There’s also a 12-inch telescope donated by David Levy through his Sharing the Sky Foundation. Levy is famous for his co-discovery in 1993 of a comet that collided with Jupiter the following year, and he has done programs in Tupper Lake through the APO several times. That piece is a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, which are known for their long focal lengths with a compact optical system that works on mirrors.

The APO also has an apochromatic refractor telescope, donated last summer by Al Nagler. Nagler is an amateur telescope builder, and he donated the apparatus in the memory of his sister, Trudy Deutsch, a longtime former Tupper Lake resident.

The fourth telescope is a 16-inch Newtonian, a reflecting telescope named for British scientist Isaac Newton, who invented the style magnification. The APO bought that one from a man in Salem, N.Y.

Each telescope will be removable, too, so as the APO upgrades, it can switch out one for a new one with a modification to the existing steel pier or a replacement one.

Staves said the APO plans to install adapters that will let people connect cameras with removable lenses to telescopes and take photos of the sky through them.

The main room is lined with both white and red lights. Red lights are better for people whose eyes have become adapted to the dark, which can take 20 minutes to an hour. Full white lights can be damaging to people’s eyes once their night vision has kicked in.

There is a white board at the end of the room that can be used for writing during presentations. Staves said he also hopes to project presentations onto the board. The APO currently has a projector on loan from the school, and it’s looking into purchasing one as well because Staves said that it would be a good instructional tool for visitors.

“Hopefully they’ll learn a little more about what it is they’re seeing,” Staves said.

The roof

As the name of the observatory would suggest, the roof rolls off the top of the main observational room so the telescopes can be exposed to the night sky.

A child-proof plug that activates the roof needs to be disengaged from its safety harness, then plugged into a box near the ceiling. With the flick of a switch, the roof starts to slowly slide off the top of the room.

The sides of the roof are mounted on wheels that run along tracks built into the building’s box beams, atop the walls.

“So it acts like a little rail system,” Staves said.

Once the roof is fully open, a wedge at its edge pushes up onto a switch and stops the motor.

The main parts of the building were constructed last fall, so it has been through a winter and has settled some. When the Enterprise saw the roof being rolled off, it creaked loudly when the rolling wheels got to one spot in the track that had shifted maybe one-sixteenth of an inch. Staves said that happened because the tracks were built so tightly to specifications.

“Any little shifting can have an effect,” Staves explained.

The APO plans to eventually hook up the roof to a system that will let it be opened or closed remotely, and also to let the facility be monitored remotely by APO directors.

The main room isn’t insulated, so the telescopes stay as close to outdoor temperatures as possible and need little time to adjust to the roof rolling off.

The warm room

The roof rolls off the main room, but it never goes off the “warm room.” The warm room is well insulated and will be warm in the winter for stargazers.

That’s the area where the observatory’s five computers are housed. The telescopes will be able to be controlled from the computers, and one or more will probably be hooked up so it can be controlled remotely via the Internet.

The computers are hooked into the recently installed broadband line that has its hub at The Wild Center natural history museum. Staves said he hopes the two will be connected soon and the APO will be able to send a live feed into the museum’s Flammer Theater.

The roomy bathroom off the warm room is fully accessible to people with handicaps, and is decorated in an Adirondack theme.

Since the whole intent of the observatory is to be able to view the night sky, the site will have full cut-off lighting outside with motion detectors. The APO has tried to keep the site as green as possible, too, so all the lighting will use energy-efficient CFLs and LEDs.

The plan

Staves and co-founder Tim Moeller started talking about creating an observatory in 2000 or 2001, Staves said. Around 2005 they got their act together and formed a nonprofit group. Ever since then, the group has been working toward the goal of building an observatory.

The APO got approval from the local planning board to move forward with the project in November 2011, and the APO started clearing the property in June 2012. The group held a groundbreaking ceremony that August, and much of the building was up by the winter.

Now the telescopes are being installed, and finishing touches are being put in. APO directors hope to have the observatory ready for its grand opening in late July or early August, if all goes as planned, Staves said.

APO directors hope to leave the facility open to people whenever they might want to use it, as long as they have a membership. Memberships are available at the APO offices on Park Street. Staves said the organization is working on a payment schedule to make them more affordable.

The goal is to generate enough revenue through membership fees to cover operating expenses, Staves said.

The APO plans to institute a clear-sky alert system that will let people know when it will be a good night for stargazing. APO members will send out an email to anyone interested and post to the APO’s website whenever a clear night is expected.

“We’re going to have a multitude of ways of getting the word out to people,” Staves said. “General rule of thumb is, if it’s clear out, there’ll be somebody here.”

The APO has involved a wide range of people, including those from area universities like St. Lawrence and Clarkson, and its board includes people from as far away as Massachusetts.

“We’re a pretty eclectic bunch,” Staves said.

But they’re mostly smart, well-educated people with a lot of passion for space, Staves said. He said the board’s work is why the APO has gotten to the point where it is today.

Cost and donations

The new building was constructed thanks to the generosity of donors and workers who gave time and materials.

The total cost for the building, site work, engineering and other construction costs adds up to around $195,000.

“And it was done through private donations,” Staves said. “There’s really no grant money involved in this.”

Most of the telescopes were donated, the five computers were donated through the Skidmore College computer recycling program, and most of the work was done by volunteers.

Staves said the CED Twin State electrical supply shop in Saranac Lake has been particularly generous. It has donated electrical service and some site lighting. Staves said when he ordered lights earlier that day, he bought one and CED donated the other.

Ken Stoll of Stoll Mechanical in Tupper Lake donated all the plumbing.

Clint Hollingsworth of Hollingsworth Carpentry and Renovation in Tupper Lake did the woodwork, the tile floors and the bathroom.

Staves, an electrician for the village, estimates that he has put maybe 80 or 90 hours of work into the facility. He wired the lights and put together the computer network.

“It’s these kinds of things that are making it happen,” Staves said.

Main observatory

The RORO is just the first phase of the APO. The group’s directors wanted to make sure their plans were sustainable, so they’re taking a phased approach to their buildout.

But they have grand plans for a larger main building in phase two. There are only conceptual plans for that phase at this point, but it includes a state-of-the-art, 19,000-square-foot, three-story, research-grade observatory with classrooms, conference rooms, a museum and a gift shop.

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.