FLORENCE — More than 50 years after it was first set in place, the iconic dome over the University of North Alabama Planetarium and Observatory has been removed while crews repair the concrete wall that has supported its weight.

Michael Gautney is assistant vice president of facilities administration and planning at UNA. He said the $125,531 project underway by Johnson Contractors of Muscle Shoals, should be completed by the first of the year.

“The concrete wall that supported the dome cracked,” Gautney said.

A new, $33,000 dome was manufactured at Ash Dome in Plainsville, Illinois, assembled in the plant to make sure everything worked, then disassembled and shipped to UNA, Gautney said.

Mel Blake has been planetarium-observatory director at UNA since 2008 and is associate professor of Physics and Astronomy. He said the observatory has not been used since 2017.

“It developed this pressure crack around the base,” he said. “We were worried about safety.”

There were other concerns with the original dome.

“The old dome had trouble with the shutter opening and closing (and) it leaked,” Blake said. “We’ve had to cover the telescope (when it rains).”

The observatory’s history is an example of how one local group partnered with the university, which was Florence State College at the time, to bring such an asset to the area. The observatory was constructed, and the dome put in place, on March 15, 1964. Members of Florence Astronomy Club wanted a public telescope locally and spearheaded the project, which took four years of effort before construction. During that time, astronomy club members learned college officials were interested in having a planetarium and observatory on campus.

What was called the “showpiece” of the observatory was the 14.5-inch telescope, the second largest in the state. Astronomy club members ground the mirror by hand and took three years to construct the telescope. It was placed in the dome on Aug. 3, 1967. It was valued at $15,000 at the time.

According to its history at the university’s website, a new telescope, a Celestron 0.42m (14 inches) was installed in 2009 that featured computer controls and optics on a Losmany titan mount. Three years later, an ST10 CCD camera was added for taking images. In the summer of 2016, a Sheleyak LHires II spectrograph was added to the observatory with accompanying software, computer control and enclosure.

The current work includes a new mount to support the weight of the instruments and dome and the use of the spectrograph, which with enable Blake to do research not just at the university level, but to include high school students in the research as well, he said. The former setup enabled adequate viewing but couldn’t provide pinpoint guidance for the eyepiece that’s needed for research.

“I’m hoping by roughly around the mid to end of next semester, we’ll be able to do research,” said Blake, who is taking advantage of the dome being off to do some maintenance work and get everything in “proper working order.”

“Our physical plant people have been wonderful through the whole process,” he said.

Blake said classes are temporarily moved to the science building, and public nights – weekly evening programs that include a 30-minute discussion of the visible constellations – have continued.

Blake said officials have brought something to UNA that can’t be found at any other state university.

“I always tell people we have a planetarium and observatory and (other universities) don’t,” he said. “This is one of the things we can brag on. We’re a small program, and for the university to do this investment in a small program shows they are looking out for every program on campus, not just the ones with the largest (student enrollment) numbers.”


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