Something Big Is Out There | Feature | Chicago Reader

Something Big Is Out There 

These Parts: And an amateur astronomer downstate is building the largest telescope in Illinois to find it.

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Professional astronomers gave up searching the midwestern sky years ago, but a backyard in central Illinois is where Robert Holmes discovered a pair of supernovas and found an uncharted asteroid. Now he's building what will be the biggest telescope in the state.

Holmes, a 48-year-old amateur astronomer, lives just east of Charleston, a college and courthouse town of 21,000 about 40 miles south of Champaign. "It's been an awful winter," he says in late March as he leads the way through his yard toward one of the prefabricated sheds that serve as his observatory. "I've had maybe ten decent nights of viewing."

The shed is like a tiny recording studio. In one room are a desk and a computer. In the other, the 16-inch telescope Holmes has had for the past five years. He put the roof on rollers, and now he slides it aside to let the night in. "It just sweeps the sky," he says. "I don't actually look through it. I've got a camera attached to it, and it transmits pictures to my computer. Last night was a good night. I shot about 200 photographs. I was looking for supernovas. I've got eight candidates." He photographs the same patch of sky several times over a 20-minute period, then his computer software compares the shots, marking any object that's shifted position relative to other objects with a blinking halo.

Nowadays, a 16-inch telescope is small potatoes--any decent astronomy club has one that size. Astronomy is a competitive science, and Holmes is part of a worldwide effort to map the asteroid belt, which lies between Mars and Jupiter and is estimated to contain millions of asteroids. Everyone from backyard hobbyists to university pros up in the Andes is looking for asteroids, so anything you can see with a 16-inch telescope has probably already been found.

"In the 90s you could point a telescope anywhere and discover an asteroid," Holmes says. "I'm at the end of the useful life of this telescope as far as discovering asteroids. This telescope can see asteroids that are two or three kilometers across. With the new one I'll be able to see things that are as small as my property--400 to 500 yards across."

Inside Holmes's garage is a piece of metal that looks like a massive tuning fork standing on its end. It weighs 3,600 pounds. This is the platform that will hold Holmes's new 32-inch telescope when it's finished. Some 1,500 pieces are scattered over his property--tubes lie on the backseat of his minivan, disks on the floor of his living room. He's been working on them all winter, welding, shaping, polishing. The most important piece, the mirror that will capture the sky and reflect it into his camera, is still being buffed at a lab in California. Once it arrives he'll be able to see deeper into the sky than almost any amateur in America. He won't say how much it's costing him, except that it's "less than six figures."

It might seem strange to spend so much money on a telescope in such a cloudy part of the country, but if you've got the astronomy jones you've got to satisfy it no matter where you happen to live. Holmes grew up in Windsor, 30 miles west of Charleston. Windsor was even more rural, and every night was a celestial show richer than anything the Adler Planetarium could produce. When he was 11 he bought a three-inch telescope, which at the time was "pretty huge." Eventually he built a 14-and-a-quarter-inch model--the third-largest telescope in the state--but in 1980 he sold it to launch a career as a fashion photographer. Holmes now photographs models for magazines such as Teen Extreme, Short and Easy Hairstyles, Prom, and Teen Beauty News. The day I met him he'd had a model fly in from North Carolina. She landed in Indianapolis, drove two hours to Charleston, then flew back home. Holmes doesn't want to leave his home state, and he figures Charleston is about as remote as he can get and still stay in business.

The astronomy bug came back to bite him in 1999, when he happened on a copy of Sky & Telescope. He hadn't read the magazine for 15 years, but he devoured the issue. When he got back home he read that Harvard University astronomer Robert Kirschner was coming to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to lecture on supernovas--gigantic explosions that mark the end of life for massive stars.

"I heard that lecture he gave that evening, and I thought, I've gotta get back into this," Holmes says. "He said there'd been a hundred supernovas discovered that year. I thought, I've got to discover a supernova. It's the most radical. You can't hardly get more radical than a star blowing up. For two months it glows brighter than anything in the galaxy. The brightest star in the galaxy, if it exploded, would destroy all life on earth."

Holmes bought his 16-inch telescope on New Year's Eve 1999, and the next year he discovered his first supernova, in the constellation Cancer. The star was 150 million light-years from earth, which meant it blew up when dinosaurs walked our planet. "I checked the records at Harvard, and this star didn't show up," he says. "It was about a month old when I found it," meaning the first light from the explosion didn't reach earth until shortly before he saw it.

It's not likely he'll find something that big again searching the sky from the midwest. The University of Illinois used to operate a 40-inch telescope in Oakland, just northeast of Charleston. In 1980 it shipped the telescope to California and now shares viewing time with San Diego State University. The southern California desert offers "much better conditions," says Jim Kaler, professor emeritus of astronomy at U. of I. "We were working about a third of the nights here. There you're at 6,000 feet, and you're in better atmospheric conditions--and 90 percent clear nights."

The University of Chicago opened Yerkes Observatory in 1895 in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, equipping it with a state-of-the-art 40-inch telescope that had been built for the Columbian Exposition. Now the lights of Lake Geneva bleach out the bottom of the sky, and the university does most of its astronomical research in New Mexico. Though it would prefer to sell, it's been converting Yerkes to an educational facility. "It's not as dark as it was 20 years ago, and it wasn't as dark then as it was 50 years ago," says director Kyle Cudworth. "But it's still a pretty good location. Even if you're from a far-reaching suburb of Chicago, it looks pretty dark here."

Light pollution has become an issue for Holmes too. He was in a prime spot for stargazing--eight on a scale of one to ten, with ten being wilderness darkness--until Wal-Mart built a supercenter less than a mile away. Now he has to point his telescope away from town to get dark sky, and he's thinking about moving another ten miles into the country.

Nevertheless, he's still making important contributions to astronomy. In March 2004 he discovered three asteroids, the first of which he named "Jackie Holmes," after his wife--a discoverer's prerogative. His finds were confirmed by the Minor Planet Center at Harvard, which records "near earth objects." Because an asteroid probably wiped out the dinosaurs, NASA is trying to catalog at least 90 percent of comets, giant meteors, and stray asteroids that could collide with earth. Lindley Johnson, who oversees the search at NASA, isn't worried about the objects cataloged so far. "We have some close approachers," he says, "but not one that would have an impact trajectory."

Last year professionals discovered 54,032 of the objects reported to the Minor Planet Center. Amateurs found only 1,531, but it's one of the few research fields where amateurs make any contribution. Comet Hyatake was found by an amateur. Tom Bopp, one of the discoverers of Comet Hale-Bopp, is also an amateur. "Astronomy is probably the science where there's more discoveries by amateurs than any other science," says Vivian Hoette, education and outreach coordinator at the Yerkes Observatory. "The sky is really big. There's a lot to find. There's definitely a niche for amateur astronomy anywhere in the world."

Holmes began working with Yerkes in 2001, when Hoette recruited him for the Hands-On Universe project, which trains high school teachers in astronomy. He now posts his sky photographs on a secure Web site for high school students to look at the morning after he takes them. "I was excited the first time I made a discovery," he says. "The tenth one didn't mean as much. This isn't personal to me--I share everything I get."

Lee Steffen, a senior at Cape Fear High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, started studying Holmes's pictures at the beginning of this school year. He uses the same computer software as Holmes, and every time he spotted something that had shifted position he typed its location into the Minor Planet Center's Web site. He always got back a message saying the object had already been discovered until December, when he got a message saying nothing had been identified in the location he submitted.

"I sent an e-mail to Bob," Steffen says. "He sent me an e-mail saying I'd discovered an asteroid. It was really joy. I told my family and they were like, 'Really? Are you sure?'"

Whatever the drawbacks of central Illinois as an astronomical observation post, Holmes has a much clearer view of the sky than any urban high school student. Holmes can see sixth-magnitude stars with his naked eye--twice as many as Steffen.

Holmes also shares his images with the Saturday Academy for Space Science, a middle school astronomy class that meets at Chicago State University on the south side, where conditions are even worse. To spend all your nights in Chicago is never to see Orion, the Big Dipper, or the Milky Way--one reason Holmes is eager to share his snapshots. If he'd grown up in the city, he says, he "might not have gotten into astronomy. When you're in a small community, what do you have to do but look at the stars?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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