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A History of Restoration

Ralph Nye talks about other telescopes he has restored in his office at Lowell Observatory. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

Jake Bacon

Drawings of telescopes and complex instruments cover the desktops and walls of Ralph Nye’s office on Mars Hill. 

There are also beautiful photos of colorful nebulae and cloudy galaxies — photos he took himself on his home telescopes. And on his drawing table are many of the same tools of the trade he used back when he started at Lowell Observatory in 1976. There are protractors and pencils, calculators and compasses, and an array of different pens along with an antiquated computer monitor. 

To his colleagues, he is known as “The Telescope Guy.” 

Nye, 68, is the director of technical services at the observatory. It’s a position that places him in charge of not only the mechanical design, but also the maintenance of every telescope and science instrument. From the modern to the historic, he’s designed instruments for many telescopes over the years, including the recent Discovery Channel Telescope.

And while he creates three-dimensional computer models of every instrument he designs for the observatory, he still draws everything by hand first. The DCT was designed with seven separate hand-drawn layers scanned into a computer program.

Among the drawings in his office are some of Lowell’s original flagship telescope: the Clark. In the coming months, Nye is tasked with renovating the historic instrument.

INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED

Lowell raised the funds last year to repair the dilapidated telescope, which hasn’t seen a major renovation since before it was used for lunar mapping during the Apollo era. In that time, the Clark has assisted nearly one million visitors on public viewing nights. 

The major challenge for Nye has been finding a way to take the telescope apart and safely remove it from the dome slit for the repair. The 32-foot telescope tube weighs thousands of pounds and surprisingly, no records remain of how it was installed more than a century ago. 

“There was no instruction manual included,” Nye said. 

He also isn’t sure how the thousands of pounds of counterweights were lifted dozens of feet into the air in an era without modern cranes. He’s had to invent his own way of removing the priceless instrument. He even calculated the weight of each piece of the telescope using historical blueprints.

TRIP TO MEXICO

Strangely, this isn’t the first time the Clark has left its dome either. 

In a feat that seems stunning today, it had taken just one week for the telescope to be installed after it arrived at the train station in Flagstaff.

Then, in November 1896, just months after it arrived and was installed in Flagstaff, the ever-eccentric Percival Lowell had the entire Clark Telescope picked up and moved to Mexico City for better skies during a particularly close approach of Mars. Lowell had been frustrated by back-to-back snowy winters and didn’t want to be clouded out again.

“How’d they do that?” Nye asked emphatically during a recent interview.

His own method for removing the telescope will involve swinging the instrument down onto a support, then disassembling the tube in two pieces for removal along with the mount. A crane will lift the massive pieces out through the tiny dome slit. The entire thing will be moved to a temporary support to be worked on. 

RENAISSANCE MAN

Nye learned his trade the old-school way. His father died at just 45 and Nye was left to provide for the family. He went to city college and worked as a machinist, finally getting a job working as an engineer for an oil company after more schooling. When the chance to work at Lowell popped up, Nye jumped on it. He never left.

“Astronomy is my hobby and they’re paying me to work on my hobby,” he said. “I don’t have a big degree, but anything they want designed, I can design it and, if need be, make the parts.” 

He’s also a renaissance man and possibly the hardest working human in northern Arizona. 

Nye lives in Montezuma’s Well, about an hour commute from Lowell Observatory. That’s where his wife has run a restaurant for 30 years, called Crickets, which Nye built himself. The engineer’s astronomy photos hang on the walls. He works 12-hour days there on the weekends, waiting tables while his wife cooks. His daughter also works at the restaurant. 

ON THE SCAFFOLDING

And while he and the other Nye — “The Science Guy” — are both exceedingly smart scientists, this one would at least win in a fight. Nye is an award-winning body builder. He doesn’t lift as much as he once did, but even at 68, he’s still hitting the gym regularly. 

On a recent tour of the Clark, Nye leapt from the telescope base to the scaffolding and climbed his way to the top of the instrument to point out a problem part. 

He suspects a now egg-shaped bearing has been making the telescope produce a booming sound that shakes the building. He’s used a stethoscope to listen to the telescope slew, but can’t be sure of the problem until the instrument is taken apart. 

“We feel pretty confident,” said Lowell Observatory spokesperson Kevin Schindler, emphasizing the understatement.  

Nye’s “hobby” is the reason for Schindler’s confidence. This won’t be Nye’s first time totally remaking a piece of astronomy history.  

FOCUS ON REBUILD

In his spare time, he rebuilds old telescopes. Nye recently acquired the telescope used to confirm Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto. After the discovery, the telescope was returned to the college that loaned it to Lowell. It sat for 75 years and was returned to Lowell for display, but waited another decade before Nye asked to buy it and take it on as a restoration project. 

He devoted 2,700 hours to the project, including 200 hours’ worth of drawing the design in detail by hand. Some of the lenses date to before the Civil War. Yet they still produce incredibly detailed night-sky photos, like one hanging in Nye’s office that includes Orion’s Belt and Nebula, as well as the Horsehead Nebula. 

So, to Nye at least, the Clark Telescope project is straightforward. 

“To me, this is just taking apart a telescope and putting it back together,” he said. 

Still, he’s acting with an abundance of caution and has pushed back his timeline for the telescope’s removal to be sure everything will be safe when it’s removed. 

“It’s a one-of-a-kind telescope, so you’ve got to treat it like there’s not another one,” Nye said. 

Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or ebetz@azdailysun.com.

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