THE FCAS STORY

By Charles E. Scovil

Soon after the founding of the Stamford Museum & Nature Center in 1936, the Museum developed an astronomy program. The Stamford Astronomers Club came to be and installed a Spitz Model "A" planetarium by building a dome made of wood slats for the frame and cardboard as the projection surface. This became the first small planetarium between New York and Boston. Here, astronomy classes were taught and a telescope was acquired. Click here for more information on the history of our telescope.

In 1945, the Stamford Museum moved from its few rented rooms downtown to a nice building on the east edge of town, then moved to its current location in 1955. There, it grew to include more astronomy, more exhibits, and even a small petting zoo. The museum moved again when the Connecticut Thruway took a large portion of its property to its current location at 118 Acre Tract in North Stamford. In the upset of the move, The Stamford Astronomers disbanded. It was succeeded in 1954 by the Fairfield County Astronomical Society. The Society requested the use of a small piece of land to build an observatory. The request was granted by the Museum and planning started. At first, a simple shed to house the Museum's 10-inch telescope was envisioned, but the Museum requested that the Observatory be opened to the public on a regular basis. That meant that there must be restrooms, and the fact that plumbing would be available meant that a darkroom could be added for developing the inevitable astrophotos. These additions more than doubled the size of the expected building, so the design was further expanded to include a small classroom. It was realized that elevating the telescope would mean better seeing, so a second floor was added. At this stage of the planning Frank and Helen Altschul found out about the proposed Observatory, since their grandson was in the astronomy program at the Museum. They donated $50,000 to build a proper observatory, and architect Gordon Johnson was hired to design it.

The Observatory building was constructed during the years 1959 and 1960 by local contractor Frank Mercede & Son. Whenever possible, surplus materials from other building jobs were used, and FCAS members did as much of the construction as possible. This was particularly helpful in finishing details of the structure, and in interior painting. In spite of these economies, costs exceeded the donation by the Altschuls and the Museum had to make a Public Subscription, raising about $17,500 more. It was promised at that time that the Observatory would always be available to the community.

A new, larger telescope was to be the contribution of the FCAS. It should be remembered that it was the time of the Cold War and the beginning of the Space Race. There were lots of government contracts for local industries, and plenty of jobs. Optical engineer John Gregory was an FCAS member, and worked at the Perkin-Elmer (optical) Corp. in Norwalk. He had become intrigued with the telescope design invented by a Russian named Maksutov. Gregory sketched the initial design and proposed to Mr. Richard Perkin that his company (Perkin-Elmer Optical Corp.) make and donate the optics, doing the work on free shop time that was available between government contracts. When Perkin agreed, the project was off and running. The same proposal was made to many manufacturers all over the northeast, each one to make parts that were in its normal sphere of manufacture, but to our specifications. In this way, a telescope was built for very little cash outlay that would have cost somewhere on the order of $200,000 at that time. Click here to read more about the history of the telescope.

Construction of the original dome was another contribution of the FCAS members. A committee designed the dome and donations from nearby companies contributed to the budget. Click here to read more about the history of our dome.


Stamford Observatory, 1960
After the dedication ceremony of the telescope, Mr. Perkin had a concern: "When are you going to paint the building white?" - to cut down on absorption of the Sun's heat by the brown brick. FCAS members banded together and in 1970 painted the building with the whitest paint available - high titanium content. Click here to read more about the history of our building.

Another project got much more active support: Considerable numbers of lunar occultations were timed. That is the passage of the Moon in front of a star. This information was used by NASA to refine our knowledge of the precise position of the Moon in preparation for sending astronauts there. One type of occultation was particularly useful in the work - the case where the north or south edge of the moon just barely covers a star. This is called a grazing occultation. A properly placed observer might see the star blocked out successively by several mountain peaks along the edge of the Moon. This data gives precise north-south positions for the Moon, and also can provide a silhouette of the mountains at that point. Many FCAS members participated in both of these observational activities.

Somewhat later, we engaged in another cooperative venture with NASA in watching as some of the Apollo Missions went to the Moon. NASA was not quite sure what would happen if they should lose radio contact with the spacecraft while in transit. They provided us with precise expected positions for the spacecraft as it left the Earth and approached the Moon. We were able to watch several of the missions, and were watching when Apollo 13 blew out an oxygen tank aborting the rest of the mission and nearly killing the astronauts. Luckily that was the only mishap, and our data was not needed to tell them where to point the extra powerful radio antennas they had waiting.

Another major research area proposed was the study of variable stars. The secretary of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) Clinton B. Ford was an FCAS member and realized that a telescope of this size would be a valuable tool for studying the variables that were too faint for most amateur telescopes. He enlisted the aid of other members and variable star work soon became the primary area of research. With the building of an internal camera mechanism for the telescope we were able to become a major contributor of photographs from which the AAVSO could make new star charts. Soon our Observatory became the primary source of such photos, and entered into drafting the charts as well. In 1987 the AAVSO gave us a grant to do all chart drafting for them, as well as other research projects.

Clinton B. Ford
This entailed the purchase of a high powered PC type computer and auxiliary equipment which are now in use to create, update and upgrade the AAVSO charts. Several FCAS members also contribute their own variable star observations. The AAVSO's monthly newsletter "AAVSO CIRCULAR" was published for 25 years at Stamford Observatory from material edited by former FCAS member John Bortle. Stamford Observatory was also for several years the headquarters for the editorial staff of the AAVSO Journal. The present computer is also used to clean up and perfect the drawings submitted to the Journal.

Since its earliest photos in 1967, the telescope has produced about 1300 plates, mostly of variable star fields, with a few of comets and deep-sky objects such as galaxies. In 1976-77 South African astronomer Christos Papadopoulos loaned the Observatory his 24" focal length f/6 Zeiss camera lens to complete the northern section or his "True Visual Magnitude Photographic Star Atlas", from +30 degrees to the north pole. While the camera was here we photographed as much of the rest of the sky as possible. This collection of plates, added to those taken with the 22-inch has been invaluable in the work of charting new fields for the AAVSO.

This work was started in 1966 by Clinton Ford, using material from Dr. Charles P. Olivier of the University of Pennsylvania. The charts produced follow the AAVSO format, but to start with were pencil-traced, and thus preliminary. Clint Ford produced hundreds of charts, and soon enlisted the aid of other members, both of the AAVSO and of the FCAS. He recruited me by loaning me a 10-inch reflector he had "retired" after purchasing a 12.5-inch for his own backyard observatory. No sooner was my observatory finished than Clint was there with some strange blueprint charts and a gleam in his eye. I was initiated into the mysteries of "Inner Sanctum" observations (those of stars of 14th magnitude or fainter) . Luckily the 10-inch was able to reach this faint range so I could observe not only the old standby stars with the blueprint charts, but also some of his new Preliminary charts of fainter stars. By the time the 22-inch came on line about a year later I was hooked on variables and started taking photos as mentioned above. Soon I was drafting charts and looking for ways to standardize and automate the process. The first step was a chart blank with the outlines and spaces for the data printed on it. Next came the use of direct photoprints from our plates, reversed to black stars on a white background. These produced rather rough-edged star images with the photo-grain showing, but at least one did not have to trace all the star images, with the attendant possibility of error. Finally we acquired a computer and scanner to translate the photos into computer graphic form. This helped a great deal, but we needed a program to make the star dots round. FCAS member Gilbert Weingarten wrote the program for us. We call it in very scientific jargon "Roundify". Member Bob Leitner collaborated in the design of computer chart forms for both Standard and Preliminary AAVSO charts, and we are now producing very legible and easy-to-use charts. In the early 1970s the group of about 8 variable star observers from the FCAS were discussing the fact that no existing star atlas showed not only the locations of the brighter variable stars, but also comparison stars of known magnitude nearby from which to estimate the variable star's brightness. Since I am a trained draftsman I volunteered to make such an atlas if a suitable base atlas could be found, along with necessary funding. Both were found in due time and I began work in early 1974. The project had been envisioned to take three years but various factors intervened and it eventually was completed in six years. The resulting work is titled "The AAVSO Variable Star Atlas" and was published by Sky Publishing Corp. of Cambridge, Mass. in 1980. A second updated edition was published by the AAVSO and is still available.

One of the interruptions in work on the variable star atlas was production of the photos for the "True Visual Magnitude Photographic Star Atlas" by Christos Papadopoulos as mentioned above. Clint Ford and I visited South Africa in 1975 and met him. He was looking for someone in the Northern Hemisphere to complete the photography for the work. I accepted the challenge and in two years took the necessary photos and prepared them for publication. It was published by Pergamon Press in three volumes including 456 charts covering the entire sky to about magnitude 13. The unique features of the Atlas were that the photos had been taken through a visual filter (to match what the eye sees), and that even in crowded Milky Way fields the scale was such that all stars appeared as individual points with no clumping.

The origin of these two atlases at Stamford Observatory has contributed to our world-wide reputation as an active research center. Our efforts in the chart - making field have also contributed to that recognition, especially among the variable star community. Our charts are distributed worldwide by the AAVSO both by mail and through the Internet, where all of them are available for downloading free. We collaborate with observing groups throughout the world. Soon we will be able to digitally generate data to complement efforts at other longitudes for more complete coverage of time-sensitive events such as Nova eruptions or stellar eclipses.

Clint Ford did not like to use the 22-inch for chart checking because of its mirror-image field, but he broke down now and then when conditions were good. He was Secretary of the FCAS for many years, and attended our meetings when he was not traveling - either for musical events (he was a violinist), or to Ford Observatory in California. It was he, of course, who made the proposal to the Museum Committee that the telescope be used for variable star work. The Committee was thought of in the early days as a great monster which would remorselessly apportion telescope time as they saw fit to nearby colleges, etc., with little of it going to the FCAS. All of the other proposals have fallen away for lack of interested personnel, the Committee is long since history, and variables are our main work. John Griese and I use the telescope as much as possible. Unfortunately my work in producing charts is more important than my doing a lot of observations for the fun of it. I do sky-check every chart I make when possible, and try to observe important stars and special alerts.

In 1984, we had a very special Astronomy Day project. The FCAS constructed a scale model of the Solar System on the Museum grounds. The Sun was represented by a one-foot diameter globe placed on the rail of the front steps of the main Museum building. This placed the inner planets along the walk/stairway down to the parking lot, with Jupiter in the middle of the farm and Saturn in front of the Observatory. Thus one could walk from planet to planet and get a feel for the scale. Jupiter was an aluminum ball a bit over an inch in diameter, and Saturn just about an inch, with its rings spanning 3 inches. All of the planets were placed on top of 2-inch pipe posts set in concrete bases. The smaller planets were represented by ballbearings of the proper size cast into clear plastic. A sign on each post gave details about the planet and its distance from the Sun. The model was a great hit on that Astronomy Day, and remained in place for some months. Teachers found it particularly helpful in exposing their classes to a bit of astronomy that is hard to convey in any other way. Unfortunately the parts of the model were subject to some vandalism and it was taken down.

In 1973, the FCAS and the museum hosted a symposium on variable stars attended by 96 registered participants plus families. The panel of speakers was drawn from the Yale Astronomy Dept. and also included the Director of the AAVSO and observers from as far away as Ohio. Attendees came from as far away as central New Jersey and Massachusetts. In addition to the panel of speakers a workshop on observing techniques was held, as well as an open house at the observatory.

In 1974 and again in 1981 FCAS hosted conventions of the Northeast Region of the Astronomical League. Both were well attended and featured excellent speakers, earning the A.L. Regional award mentioned below.

In the early 1980s, the museum had a NASA-sponsored exhibit of models and materials about the Space Shuttle. These included a four-foot long model of the Space Telescope on display at the observatory. During our contact with NASA, they mentioned that they had a 1/3-scale model of the Lunar Lander Module (LEM) that they were about to retire. It was sent to us on semi-permanent loan and now hung display in the foyer of the observatory for many years.

In 1995, on the occasion of the observatory's 35th year, we hosted the Spring Meeting of the AAVSO. Most events were held at the Tara Hotel on Summer Street, with tours of the observatory evenings. There were about 90 participants from all over the world.

Also in 1995, the FCAS painted all of the public areas of the observatory's interior using lighter shades of the old colors. The painting of the ceiling of the auditorium white required three coats to cover the original dark green. The dark green had made the place look like a cave, and absorbed much of the light. Once the walls were painted, we put in the mural of the Solar System comparing the sizes of the planets to a nine-inch globe of the Earth. This has been an extremely popular exhibit.

In December 1998, FCAS member Julius "Mark" Marcus donated an SBIG (Santa Barbara Instrument Group) ST-8 CCD camera to the Museum for our use. Click here to read more about the history of our telescope.

The FCAS has produced a number of "graduates" who are well known in the astronomical Community. Perry Remaklus moved south and with a partner founded Willman-Bell Publishing Company, one of the best known publishers of materials for the amateur astronomer. In the early 1960s a junior section had as members Phil Harrington, now an astronomy educator and author of several books on astronomical equipment and observing; Richard Berry who became editor of Astronomy Magazine for many years and is author of a book on making your own CCD camera, and of software for operating CCD cameras; member Rick Sternbach was quite a budding artist, and now works in the movie and TV industry at the highest levels designing backgrounds and sets for science fiction movies. FCJAS member Eugene Major went on to get a Masters degree in astronomy, but later switched subjects before getting his PhD in physics. Designer of our telescope John Gregory moved from Stamford to the central Texas area to work at the McDonald Observatory upgrading their telescopes. He is now retired and works as a consultant for many observatories and universities. FCAS former president Tom Williams got interested in variable stars here and went on to become president of the AAVSO. He is now retired after a career with Shell Oil Co. and is about to get his PhD in the history of astronomy at Rice University.

Member John Griese started here as a highschooler in the 1970s and has gone on to specialize in astronomy. He has worked as an observer and researcher on the Stellar Parallax Program at Wesleyan and Yale Universities for years, and also helps teach some courses there at both undergraduate and graduate levels. He also teaches adult education courses at several school systems around the state including Stamford (that course is taught here). He is a past President of FCAS, and has been a Council Member of the AAVSO.

Former FCAS member John Bortle is well known as an expert on comets and has written a monthly column for Sky & Telescope magazine for many years. He has also been a member of the Council of the AAVSO and has contributed tens of thousands of visual observations of variable stars. He is a sought-after lecturer on comets, having even been invited to Japan, all expenses paid, to lecture there.

FCAS members have been honored by too many awards to list. They include: The Leslie C. Peltier observing award of the Astronomical League (2 members), the Director's Award of the AAVSO, the AAVSO Merit Award (2 members), the Astronomical League Regional Award, and the E. E. Barnard Observer's Award and the Caroline Herschel Observers Award of the Western Amateur Astronomers.