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AMERICAN ALBUM

Builder meets an eye-in-the-sky challenge : When it's finished, the Mt. Evans telescope will be the highest operating observatory.

August 22, 1996|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MT. EVANS, Colo. — During a lull between hailstorms and lightning strikes earlier this month, Patrick Meyer pushed back the hood of his parka and marveled at what will soon be the world's highest operating astronomical observatory.

Over the past 25 years, the contractor and amateur astronomer has built million-dollar chalets and remote-controlled airplanes, and all the knowledge garnered from those experiences has gone into the project he calls "the greatest accomplishment of my life."

"It's been like working on the wing of an airplane while it's taking off in a snowstorm," said Meyer, 42, casting a wary look skyward as dark clouds rolled over the summit of 14,264-foot Mt. Evans, about 50 miles west of Denver. "A few days ago, it was like the 'Wizard of Oz' tornado here."

When first starlight falls on the University of Denver telescope's twin 28-inch mirrors sometime next month, built-in remote control equipment and computers will open a new channel to the heavens for research scientists.

Eventually, university officials say, observation time will be set aside for students and stargazers across the Denver region, who will be able to summon images of astronomical events on a computer link in the comfort of their classrooms and homes.

University of Denver astrophysicist Robert Stencel predicts that in nights to come, "average people will be able to pull up images from Mt. Evans of Mars . . . and then have fireside chit chats about what they are seeing."

What scientists call a "public component" in optical astronomy is a trend started three years ago at Mt. Wilson Observatory in Southern California's Angeles National Forest. Images from its 24-inch reflector telescope are downloaded by students across the United States, as well as in Japan, Australia, England and Europe.

"Many professional observatories are now setting aside time for schools and amateurs because access has become easy," said Sally Baliunas, deputy director of the Mt. Wilson Institute. "It is something that could not have been done a decade ago. And since a lot of astronomy is funded by taxpayers and private donations, it is good to be able to pay back what the public has invested in."

For now, University of Denver officials envision a relatively modest public outreach program for their Meyer-Womble Observatory, which will be primarily dedicated to research on atmospheric conditions of planets, orbital motions of comets and asteroids, and the search for planets orbiting nearby stars.

But they hope sometime next year to link their state-of-the-art telescope with the Gates Planetarium at the Denver Museum of Natural History. The planetarium hopes to offer real-time views of objects such as Mars, which has piqued public interest as a possible second cradle of life in our solar system.

Completion of the Meyer-Womble Observatory is the realization of a dream for Eric Meyer (no relation to Patrick Meyer), a 40-year-old Chicago anesthesiologist who designed the telescope, donated nearly $1 million to build it and then handed it over to the university.

"What we are doing is consistent with the dream of a lot of leading astronomers: continue serious research without government funds," Eric Meyer said. "At the same time, our intent is to reach out to a broader range of users, both locally and nationwide."

Although small compared to the astronomical instruments at Mt. Palomar in Southern California and at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, the Meyer-Womble telescope will rely on its altitude and on optical technologies that compensate for the turbulence of the Earth's atmosphere to provide crisp images.

In the meantime, Patrick Meyer and his crew of masons, roofers, welders, electricians and plumbers are getting a boost from the surging hopes that Meyer-Womble will enter the already fiercely competitive search for new planetary systems.

They need the boost. In a place where the road ices over in August, roofers scramble to get as much done as possible between gusts of 80-mph winds and storms that pounce with little notice.

The air is so thin here that oxygen tanks have been strategically placed throughout the 2,100-square-foot observatory complex.

And the weather is so fickle that Meyer designed the observatory aerodynamically to withstand 200-mph winds. University officials note, however, that nighttime viewing conditions on the mountain can be excellent much of the year.

"It's been a heck of a deal putting something like this up at this altitude," Meyer said, buttoning his down jacket amid midday temperatures in the 30s. "But hey, it's worth it just knowing that average people will soon have space shuttle views of space from their own homes."

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