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Big eye opens the sky to public

Wayne Tripp pointed the Science Center's new telescope toward the night sky and looked 35-million years into the past.

The image on the computer monitor was Whirlpool, a spiral galaxy whose light began its journey to us when primitive apes first appeared on earth.

For a more traditional measure of how far from here to Whirlpool: A light-year is about 6-trillion miles. Now multiply by 35-million.

The Science Center's new toy, a Meade Instrument telescope, has reached the recently opened Carol Samuels Observatory, 7701 22nd Ave. N, after months of planning, negotiating and constructing.

No other telescope of its kind has been available to the public in a non-university setting, said Tripp, president of the St. Petersburg Astronomy Club.

"This telescope is considered a research-grade instrument, which means we can use this telescope for actual scientific research, like chasing after supernovas, better known as blown-up stars," Tripp said.

"The size of this telescope's mirror diameter _ 16 inches _ is what is most important. This allows us to see in-depth images like the 3-mile-deep craters on the moon, something we have not been able to do before."

On Saturday, the Science Center will introduce its baby. The Astronomy Club will host a public viewing session from 3 to 11 p.m. Festivities will include solar flare viewing, astronomy storytelling, laser light shows, children's activities and live jazz music.

Standing 9 feet, the 400-pound telescope takes up a lot of space in the small, round observatory building. The telescope cylinder, which houses the sight controls, is more compact than traditional telescopes of its size because the optics are folded inside, creating a 3-foot-long cylinder compared to the 10- to 15-foot cylinders.

This design requires the "eye," or mirror, to be more exact, delivering precise, exact images from outer space.

A navigational computer in the telescope creates a tracking system of the "objects in space" _ galaxies, supernovas, volcanic craters on the moon and twin-stars.

Locating one of these objects can be as simple as picking out a favorite song on a jukebox.

The computer responds to a series of numbers printed out in menu form for reference. Using a key pad similar to a TV remote, the programed pair of numbers enters the system. The computer then asks for the second set of numbers. The completed pair of numbers provides the telescope with the information needed to locate the particular star or planet.

This sophisticated design doesn't come cheap: The telescope cost $18,000, most of which came to the center in donations.

Try to imagine how one device can project an image so vast as a burning star 3,500 light years from Earth. Astronomers at the Science Center suggest thinking of the telescope as a human eye.

"Picture the mirror of the telescope to be a giant human eye," said Mark MacNeill, an Astronomy Club member. "With a diameter of 16 inches across, the mirror becomes this giant eye gathering light."

The Meade has the ability to track more than 60 objects in space, said David Knowlton, chairman of the Science Center and past president of the Astronomy Club.

"The universe has a laid-out grid system," Knowlton said. "The computer inside the telescope responds to numbers or points assigned to space objects. Our telescope has the ability to locate any two points given."

It was not very long ago that the idea of having a telescope this size was a dream for the Science Center and Astronomy Club.

When a donation of $25,000 arrived from Carol and Allen Samuels, plans were put into motion to build a new observatory that would one day house a new, powerful telescope.

Architect and club member Ken Rejko drew the plans and randomly picked the Meade telescope as a model for position only.

"When Ken was working on the plans for the observatory, he picked this telescope and used the model as a reference to where it would go," Tripp said. "We didn't expect to actually get a Meade, but once David Knowlton began the negotiations, it became clear we were getting our telescope and then we became so excited."

Like a group of Little Leaguers describing their first win, the amateur astronomers climb over each other to explain the telescope's features.

The Astronomy Club has more than 400 members: architects, teachers, a gravedigger, doctors, lawyers, house painters, engineers. The club is responsible for the construction from every plan drawn, every inch of concrete poured and every bolt tightened. All the work was done on a volunteer basis, taking more than 12 months.

"Every one in the SPAC contributed one way or another to build the observatory and install the telescope," Tripp said.

With a telescope this large it is important to have a sound, steady positioning. A 6-foot pier was designed as a "tripod" for the telescope and was installed separate from the concrete slab surrounding it.

"We had to build a separate pier 6 feet underground because any movement on the ground could cause the telescope to vibrate, therefore creating a distorted view," Knowlton said as he slapped the side of the telescope to prove his point.

Taking into consideration the sensitivity of the human eye and how it responds to white light, red light bulbs attached to the walls of the observatory circle the telescope.

"'In order to effectively work with the telescope and be able to read the planet charts, we installed red lights in the observatory so the eyes would become dark-adapted," Tripp said.

By adding red lighting, the human eye develops night vision. The same strategy is used on submarines.

The Science Center and Astronomy Club are negotiating to purchase by midsummer an electronic camera or charged coupled device, known as a CCD. This device would allow the Science Center to project the images brought in by the telescope along a large back wall of the Science Center building.

"What we hope to do is to invite the public to come and sit on the lawn with their families and picnics to watch objects projected here on this wall," Tripp said. "Kind of like a drive-in movie."

"We get to see some of the most incredible images," Tripp said. "From the ground, a star may look like just a star, but when it is seen through the telescope, that one star may turn out to be actually two stars burning together. These are the things we find so fascinating and want to share with people."

The Science Center also has a solar telescope and plans to install it as soon as time permits. The public will be able to view the sun through specialized filters.

When a celestial event such as comet Hale-Bopp occurs, the Science Center encourages the public to come visit. In addition to the projected images on video screens and the back wall, Astronomy Club members set up their personal telescopes so there are plenty of chances for everyone to have a look.

For information on Saturday's activities, call the Science Center of Pinellas County at 384-0027.