Posted by: Stephanie | June 13, 2014

Full Moon, Friday Night: Fick Observatory’s History

Today is a Friday the 13th and will be accompanied by a full moon, which seemed like a good time to talk about lunar history at Iowa State University. Namely, the university’s history related to space observation.

A photo of the Mather telescope. "Splendor of the Iowa Skies" calendar, RS 13/20/6

A photo of the Mather telescope. “Splendor of the Iowa Skies” calendar, RS 13/20/6

ISU’s original observatory, along with its telescope, were donated by the family of Milo Mather of Clarksville, Iowa. Mather was an accomplished amateur astronomer who had earned a degree in mechanical engineering from ISU in 1907. When he passed away in 1960, his 24-inch telescope became the university’s only astronomical equipment. The telescope had a 300 pound mirror, with an eight-foot focal length and a four inch-thick lens.

In 1966, with support from the National Science Foundation and the University Research Grants Committee, Iowa State moved forward with plans to move the observatory from the greater Ames area to the Boone area and improve its capabilities, adding features such as a sliding roof to improve star viewing and study. The observatory, on a 50-acre site, was completed in 1970. Its namesake, Erwin Fick, was a former member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who crafted refractor and reflector telescopes in his retirement. Fick donated generously to the ISU Foundation in his later years though he never visited Ames, despite being a lifelong resident of Davenport.

The moon, as seen from the Mather telescope at Fick Observatory. This photo illustrates the changing color as well as the features of the moon. "Splendor of the Iowa Skies" calendar, RS13/20/6

The moon, as seen from the Mather telescope at Fick Observatory. This photo illustrates the changing color as well as the features of the moon. “Splendor of the Iowa Skies” calendar, RS 13/20/6

The telescope at ISU has been upgraded over time, with a charge-couple device (CCD) camera installed in 1990, though the Department of Physics and Astronomy refers to it as a “first-general direct descendent” of Mather’s instrument. Information gathered using this telescope complements data obtained by larger observatories, which can provide fine detail but have difficulty observing wide areas of the sky.

For more information about the history of the Mather telescope and the Fick Observatory, come see us in Special Collections! We have materials on the observatory building itself (in RS 4/8/4, Buildings and Grounds Records), as well as Fick Observatory administrative records (RS 13/20/6).

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