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U. of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory to close after 120 years (chicagotribune.com)
68 points by wglb 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 16 comments



Yerkes is a special place. I had the privilege of spending the night there as a student, and while I know nothing about astronomy, it was one of the highlights of my undergrad. The gorgeous grounds, the fairytale/museum architecture, the creepy catwalks and spiral staircases connecting the telescopes, the computer room filled with VAXen (only time I’ve seen a VT200 in person), and the welcoming staff made it a hell of a trip. Yerkes embodies the hacker ethos. There’s automation around each telescope still in operation that’s clearly built by staff familiar with Arduinos and home automation rather than some government contractor. The platforms of the domes rotate; one of them is rigged with a handheld barcode scanner to find its place among the labels taped to the outside wall. Clever mixes of the original early-20th-century electrical control panels and 2010s electronics abound.

My friends in astrophysics have worked on equipment in its basement machine shop that is now in space. All of them credit Yerkes with motivating them to enter or stay in the field. There is enormous backlash on social media, and a glimmer of hope that Yerkes might operate in substantially the same way independently or under different ownership.

I’m deeply skeptical of historic preservation, but if there were ever a place that needed to be landmarked, it’s this one.


Can you provide links to discussion on plans to keep it operating, e.g. under different ownership? Is there anything the Chicago HN community can help with?


Most of the student outreach is a pathos appeal under #saveyerkes on Facebook and Twitter, but this comment from one of the directors on its Facebook page indicates that there might be more substantive plans in the works [0].

[0] https://www.facebook.com/YerkesObservatory/posts/10156061540...


Rather sad news. I hope they do something better with the place than build condos. It's a gorgeous tract and a gorgeous building.


That is a shame. My great-grandfather was an astronomer there when it opened in 1897. It has a long history of important research.


Fascinating, did he work there long enough to know Edwin Hubble?


Well, after doing a little more research it seems that if they had any overlap, it would have been exceedingly brief. Hubble was working on his first paper at Yerkes in 1915 just at a time when a number of older astronomers, including my great-grandfather, were retiring.


Yes, he must have been! I didn't think of that. He was there from 1897 to 1914, so they must have overlapped.


Should be turned into a hacker space for amateur astronomers.


Is anyone interested in having an HN meetup for a science tour prior to closure? I will be taking my family next month, but wouldn't mind arranging something for those HN readers in the area.


I would and kind of you to propose.


That's the end of an era - Yerkes has the largest refracting telescope ever built.


Could they turn it into a museum and planetarium? Such a beautiful building.


This Chicago Tribune article from 5 years ago (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-02-13/news/ct-met-ye...) gives more details and actually made me quite pessimistic about the future of the building. It says the yearly costs were (then) $400k and that the University floated plans to convert the area and building into luxury condos, only stopped by the local community. Whenever there’s so much potential for making money (on the order of tens of millions of dollars) it’s pretty much inevitable that it will happen sooner or later.


As others have said this is incredibly sad, I guess the best case scenario at this point is for it to be a condo, at least the great building can be saved.

But what really puzzles me is that how this great resource cannot be put to better use. Yes, the telescope may "no longer contribute directly to the research mission" but it still blows your $300 home telescope out of the water! I, for one, would pay at least $250 a night for a modest room if I am allowed to use that beast (with supervision, of course). I guess there would be tons of amateur astronomers who would feel the same.

I understand U of C does not have the bandwidth to do this, but why doesn't a local startup/philanthropist/whatever step up?


It's too bad that space-based telescopes are so rare. Imagine if an observatory like this was just an uplink to a satellite in space. That preserves the history and institution while keeping it current in terms of technology.




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