Happy Trails: Stamford 22” Telescope Makes Move To New Mexico

CORRECTION: this article was previously titled 'Happy Trails: Stamford 20” Telescope Makes Temporary Move To New Mexico'. This was incorrect, as the telescope is 22" and the move is permanent.

The Stamford Museum and Nature Center has had an observatory since the 1960’s, under the direction of Charles Scovil, a preeminent Variable Star observer. When the observatory was built, it was in conjunction with the Fairfield County [CT] Astronomical Society. At the time, that was a high-powered club with some very talented professional opticians among its members, including Bob Cox and John Gregory. Both were working for Perkin-Elmer at one point, and you may recall that Perkin-Elmer was producing some of the most sophisticated large optics during its telescope making heyday. (One notable example was the primary for the Hubble Space Telescope. Yes, that primary, which was well made, but in the wrong shape.

This photograph shows the Hubble Space Telescope’s primary mirror being ground at the Perkin-Elmer Corporation’s large optics fabrication facility in 1979, more than a decade before its very small but very significant flaw was discovered. Credit: NASA

Those FCAS astronomers had a grand plan to produce a large Maksutov catadioptric reflector of about 20 inches aperture. However, they were able to obtain a blank for a 22-inch corrector and so that is what was built. It is a massive telescope, and the optics were fashioned by Perkin-Elmer. It is not known if Gregory did the actual work on it, but that is the rumor. One thing is certain, though: he modified the design to include a fast f/3.4 photographic focus inside the optical tube, for wide field astrophotography. The telescope can still be used visually since the plate holder can flip out of the way inside the tube. Thus, the telescope has always been credited as a Gregory-Maksutov and it is the largest in the Northern Hemisphere and is, perhaps, the second largest Maksutov in the world.

22″ Gregory-Maksutov at SM&NC. Credit: Bart Fried

Unfortunately, the FCAS has fallen on hard times, with very few members left. At the same time, the observatory structure has become decrepit, with cracking of the walls and foundation, and so it has been condemned and shuttered. The telescope was removed for immediate off site storage on October 18th, 2022 with a bright future ahead. It is slated to ship to Magdalena, New Mexico, where it will be installed in a new home. The SM&NC will still own it, but it will be a long-term loan with the idea that it can be remotely operated from New Mexico, for use by the new Stamford Observatory.

A fabulous Planetarium, Science Center and Observatory complex is planned to be built on the existing site. The construction schedule is for the facility to be open by end of 2023. It is hoped that the new facility will ‘compete’ well with the Rose Center and Hayden Planetarium here in the city, making it easier and less expensive for the school kids of Southern Connecticut to get their astronomy inspiration right in their backyard.