Sometime before the end of June, families, government officials, invited guests and astronomy geeks will gather in Stansbury Park, Tooele County, to celebrate the opening of a new feature of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society’s observatories. It will be the fourth big telescope stationed at the site, the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex, and the largest of the group.
In fact, the telescope built by Mike Clements dwarfs all other amateur telescopes in the world.
The main mirror is a spectacular glass disk 70 inches across, originally made for an American spy satellite. Weighing 900 pounds, it’s just one component of the gigantic apparatus. With its crane-like structure aimed horizontally, the telescope is 35 feet long, 11½ feet wide and 16 feet high.
A new building to house this magnificent magnifier is under construction. When finished, it will be a rectangular module 45 feet long and 25 feet wide, with walls of concrete and steel. The roof’s peak will be 23 feet above the concrete floor. A "garage door" 14 feet wide and 16 feet high will open at the front. For public and private star parties, Clements’ telescope will be rolled out of the building and onto a circular concrete pad.
Clements, a Salt Lake County resident who is a truck driver, usually following routes from Salt Lake City to Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho, recalled the start of his lifelong interest in astronomy.
In the 1960s, when he was 8 or 9 and living with his parents in Los Angeles, he remembers lying on the couch in the living room at night, looking out a window and watching the movement of the moon as it changed from night to night. He also tracked something that looked like a bright star but didn’t act like a star.
"This object would change positions from night to night in relation to the background," he said. "And it freaked me out. I just thought it was really weird."
He did some research and discovered it was the planet Venus.
"Then I was hooked," Clements said. He learned all he could about astronomy.
"I didn’t tell him, but I tore apart a pair of my father’s reading glasses and made up some excuse, 'Oh, the dog must have got them.'" He mounted the ill-gotten lenses in a framework of sticks and bicycle spokes, and he and friends propped it up on a park’s picnic table.
"This lens assembly didn’t work very well, although it did function. I did get crude, albeit upside-down, images," he said.
At that time he didn’t realize this type of telescope produced inverted views. Still, "We were all excited. ... It magnifies!" he said.
He began building telescopes but was never satisfied.
Clements wanted larger mirrors, which grab more light and make the astronomical object brighter and clearer. In the 1990s, he and two friends, who are experts in optics, Utahns Steve Dodds and Vaughn Parsons, built a telescope with a mirror 40 inches in diameter, one of the biggest amateur instruments at the time. As soon as he peered through it he said it was good — but not where he wanted it to be. "That was too small."
In 2004, Parsons bought the behemoth mirror for the spy satellite, which the federal government had auctioned off because of an inconsequential chip on the side. At first sight, Clements said, "I had to have it." The payments stretched over years.
He designed it in his free moments during a period when he was driving the truck throughout the country. He brought along sticks and a hot-glue gun and built a model.
"This is clearly, clearly, a case of the saying, 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.' I had no concept if this primary mirror would even focus," he said. He worried the mirror would turn out to be for a type of astrophotography setup that brings the image to bear on a curved sheet of film, not to a point that can be enlarged by eyepieces.
If the telescope didn’t work, he thought, "at least I would have failed in a colossal manner."
When it was nearly complete, it could be tested. Clements tilted down the structure, which was the size of a school bus, and Dodds stood on a slight hill and used a Ronchi device to check the mirror. It came to a focus that was right for an eyepiece, much to Clements' relief.
At his first try observing with the telescope, before he had motorized its slewing, he had to steer the vast device by muscle power. Although it is balanced on its mount to make movement easier, finding astronomical targets was a task.
"Oh, the view, the view!" he said.
At last, he had a telescope that showed objects at the scale and brightness he wanted. It was like looking at astronomical photographs, not the faint smudges seen through most amateur 'scopes.
"This is all I was after, all along," he said. "It took me, I would say, almost a lifetime’s struggle. This was all I wanted."
Staring at the nebula, he was delighted with "the structure and the image scale, the brightness and the detail."
There will be public star parties on Friday, May 5, at the Harmon's grocery store parking lot, 5454 S. Redwood Road, Taylorville, and Saturday, May 6, at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex, 252 UT-138, Stansbury Park. See slas.us for information.