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New telescope largest in Sonoma County

  • Steve Follett prepares to lift a 40-inch diameter telescope mirror onto a polishing table for smoothing to remove any astigmatism in the glass, in Santa Rosa, Calif. on January 25, 2013 . The finished telescope will be installed at the Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sugarloaf State Park. (Photo by Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County astronomers are putting the finishing touches on a 40-inch mirror, which will be the heart of a new telescope that will peer into the outer edges of the universe.

The telescope will be the largest in Sonoma County, one of only six or seven that large in the state and one of the very few available for public viewing, said Steve Follett, who is building the mirror for the Ferguson Observatory at Sugarloaf State Park.

"There aren't too many of them around," Follett said. "This observatory is dedicated to public observing and visual observing. It is all public astronomy. We are not doing private research."

New Ferguson Observatory Telescope

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Follett, a computer programmer, is the optician for the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association, a group of amateur astronomers who own and run the Ferguson Observatory.

With the light-gathering capability of the big mirror, the telescope will be able to bring into focus galaxies that are 2 to 3 billion light years away, in the far reaches of the universe, said George Loyer, association president.

"Once you get a bit more light, you see not only the shapes themselves, but you will see the color," Loyer said. "It won't be as amazing as the Hubble telescope view, but there is something about the ability to put your eye to the eyepiece and see something that you have only seen in photographs. It is a more emotional experience."

The telescope project started in 2003, when association members started collecting pieces.

Follett started grinding the mirror, a giant piece of two-inch thick glass, on a mammoth turntable in his Santa Rosa garage in 2008.

The glass was bought from an amateur telescope-maker in Stockton for $5,000, which is a tenth of what a finished mirror would cost. It had already been ground into a parabolic shape, but then underwent hundreds of hours of grinding on Follett's polishing table, which had been constructed at Caltech in 1912 in Pasadena, using a washing machine motor to drive a gear box and spindle.

Last fall, the mirror was installed in its 12-foot housing and tested at Ferguson Observatory, but the image was unsatisfactory.


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