Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium

History of Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium

JI and OTA
James Irving Holcomb (right) standing next to the optical tube assembly just before it was hoisted into the dome of the observatory.

When Butler University was located in Irvington on the east side of Indianapolis, Joseph I. Irwin, a member of the Butler University board of trustees from Columbus, IN, gave the university its first observatory. It was a small round building made of sheet metal with a dome and an opening in which the 6-inch refracting telescope could be placed while being used.

After Butler University was moved to the north side if Indianapolis in 1928, the telescope was dismantled and stored, and the Irvington observatory was torn down. In the 1930s the telescope was repaired and remounted by Will Irwin, the son of Joseph I. Irwin and also a member of the board of trustees. However, during the World War II courses in astronomy were discontinued and the telescope was not used until October of 1945 when the Math club had the privilege of using it.


Obs Construction2
This picture shows the support structure for the telescope pier Note the highlighted region where the pier will sit. This structure does not come in contact with the rest of the building so that vibration of the telescope is minimized.

In April of 1953, Indianapolis industrialist and vice president of the Butler board of trustees James Irving Holcomb and his wife, gave $250,000 to the university for the construction of an observatory as a gift for the university's centennial celebration. The observatory was intended for public use and student learning. Initially the observatory was supposed to house a 24-inch telescope valued at $30,000 in 1953 dollars, but in October of 1953 a larger 38-inch mirror was available and Holcomb jumped at the chance to have the largest telescope in the state of Indiana and the ninth largest in the United States. This raised the cost of the telescope to $48,500 and the total project cost to $325,000. In October of 1954 the telescope was installed by J.W. Fecker, Inc. The telescope and assemblage was shipped to Indianapolis from Pittsburgh by truck. Installation of the telescope in the 50 foot high dome was done by crane (even today a crane must be used to get the 600 pound mirror from the dome to ground level for resurfacing every five years). Governor George N. Craig delivered the dedicatory address and Charles F. Kettering, vice president and director of General Motors Corporation, spoke at the dedication dinner on November 5th 1954. The observatory was placed on a high knoll on the north end of the Butler academic campus, adjacent to the woods of the Holcomb Gardens. The observatory is visible from 38th street and to motorist driving northward on Clarendon Road.

Obs Construction Dome
This picture shows the dome just before completion. The original dome was made of wood. After several decades of Indiana weather the dome was replaced with the current aluminum dome.

In addition to the telescope, the observatory has a lobby, clock room, class room, and planetarium. The lobby is considered by designers as the "showplace" of the building. This is a 14 foot replica of the zodiac done in brilliantly colored terrazzo on the floor. Ceiling spotlights emphasize the design and colors. A cantilever stairway, also bearing zodiac and planet signs in iron, winds upward to the dome and telescope. Along the stairway and on the landings are 20 lighted cases containing images from telescopes and spacecraft. The planetarium is both a laboratory and theater, used to examine the motion of celestial objects and learn the location and motions of these objects. The entire celestial sphere can be projected, making it look as if you were outside far away from the light pollution of Indianapolis. The day or night sky can be presented, and we can accelerate time and motions of celestial objects to view the past or future. The planetarium equipment consist of Spitz A3P projector which was installed in 1981 and can seat 60 visitors. The projector is controlled by the operator at the north end of the planetarium. The planetarium has many special features and audio visual equipment that make an evening at the planetarium entertaining as well as educational for people of all ages.

In 1995, Butler University began the first phases to upgrade the 38-inch telescope. The telescope was mechanically and structurally sound but was difficult for the observer to use. The refurbishment of the telescope was done by AB Engineering of Ft Wayne, Indiana. Slewing motors were added to the telescope so that it no longer had to be moved by hand and to allow computer controlled pointing of the telescope. The University hired AB Engineering of Ft. Wayne, Ind., for the upgrade. This refurbishment of the telescope was finished in April 1997.  The upgrade made deep imaging possible; celestial objects 6 million times fainter than the human eye can be detected through the Holcomb Telescope. The telescope has been used for both introductory and advanced courses and several student research projects, particularly for determining critical asteroid rotation rates, examining variability of dying supergiant stars, and following transiting exoplanets.

In 2008 , Butler University strengthened its astronomy program by joining the SARA consortium, thanks to a donation by F. Levinson. This consortium of 10 universities possesses two 1-meter class telescopes, one at Kitt Peak, Ariz., and the other at Cerro Tololo, Chile. Having remote access to these telescopes has provided Butler students, at all levels and majors, with the unique experiences of being an astronomer and participating in original astronomical research.

During 2012 the Holcomb telescope and dome of the observatory will once again be overhauled. Primary items to be addressed in this overhaul are the optics of the telescope.  The telescopes focal ratio will be reduced from and f/16 to an f/8.  This reduction of focal ratio will quadruple the field of view of the telescope.  The dome will also have failsafe mechanisms allowing it and the telescope to be used remotely.  One key goal of the proposed refurbishment is to have the Holcomb Telescope operations be identical to those of the SARA telescopes, so that our students can use the same seamless interface when observing.  This overhaul will be completed by Astronomical Consultants & Equipment, Inc.  They have upgraded over 30 telescopes including two similar Fecker telescopes, one for the University of Georgia and one for Agnes Scott College.  This overhaul is once again possible due to a generous donation by F. Levinson.