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Restorations at U. observatory reveal starry skies

Ladd Observatory sits about a half mile north of campus, sheltered behind a cluster of trees on the corner of Hope Street and Doyle Street. After a summer of major renovations to viewing equipment and to the building itself, the observatory reopened Tuesday, drawing a crowd of Providence residents for a unique star-gazing experience.

A work in progress

Curator Michael Umbricht said the restorations to the telescope - which included gear replacement and a more historically accurate coat of paint in its clock drive - were the most significant updates made in the past 60 years.

Maintaining the clock drive was particularly important to sustaining the main telescope, Umbricht said.

"As the earth is turning, the stars are going to rise in the east and move across the sky," he said. Because the observatory was built before the widespread use of electricity, astronomers used the clock drive to follow the stars as they moved, keeping the observed stars centered in their view of the heavens.

But the age of the telescope made restoration difficult, Umbricht said. Though he "dug through patents from 1890" to better understand its mechanics, some aspects of the telescope were not documented, he said. "You just have to figure it out yourself as you go along."

Umbricht said the observatory plans to continue further restoration work in stages.

"Little by little, we're restoring various parts of it," he said.


Starry, starry night

At the stroke of 8 p.m. on Tuesday, people climbed Ladd's stairs eagerly to get a look at the skies through the telescope. In the dim light of the main observatory room, manager Bob Horton described the large telescope's featured view: the Moon Maiden, a tip of the rocky edge of a crater. Discovered by Giovanni Cassini, the outcrop resembles a woman in profile with flowing hair when lit by the sun at a certain angle.

The first people to climb up the telescope's ladder and take a look were Mya Riviera, 4, and her brother Alonso, 9, both at Ladd for the first time.

"That's the closest I've ever seen the moon in my life," Alonso said. "It's not like looking at pictures because you can see it for yourself."

Their mother, Ty, agreed.

"It's kind of the closest you can get without actually being there," she said.

Smaller telescopes were also featured on the observation deck, with views of Uranus and Neptune and a double star in the constellation Lyra. Downstairs, exhibits showcased prints of celestial bodies, antique radios and a centuries-old telescope that once belonged to famed astronomer Benjamin West, professor of mathematics and natural history at Brown from 1786-98. 

The opening also drew old friends of the observatory, including Marc Harrison '92, who served as an astronomy teaching assistant during his time at Brown, and his son and daughter. Now a science teacher and director of diversity planning and services at the Wheeler School, Harrison said he had been at the observatory with his children several times.

He called the observatory a "community anchor" and resource that more people should be aware of, adding that the main draw was the staff's commitment to astronomy and science outreach.

"The sky never changes," he said. "I come back for the people."


Looking forward (and upward)

"It's like a whole new world in there," staff astronomer Francine Jackson said, adding the renovations were closer to the observatory's original 1891 appearance.

What cannot be restored is the state of Providence's skies. Both natural weather and recent light pollution have complicated star-gazing in Providence, Jackson said. But the level of starlight, she said, still makes astronomy accessible to amateurs just beginning to gaze skyward.

"This is a great place to be introduced to the sky," she said.


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