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Future of historic Yerkes Observatory remains unclear

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Kevin Hoffman
October 24, 2011
— The history of Yerkes Observatory is well documented—the collapse of its 19th century telescope, a visit from Albert Einstein.

It’s future is less clear.


Once considered among the most prestigious observatories in the nation, Yerkes role has changed, becoming less a place for research and more an institution for education. Even so, officials at the 114-year-old observatory believe they will continue to make their marks on science.


“There is still research going on here, and certainly some major engineering efforts building equipment for NASA and (the California Institute of Technology) and equipment for Berkeley,” said Kyle Cudworth, director of Yerkes Observatory. “We got major engineering efforts going on, and education outreach continues to ramp up more.”


Engineers at Yerkes are building an infrared camera that will become part of NASA’s flying observatory. Other projects relate more to Earth science or materials science than astronomy, Cudworth said.


Yerkes is one of the most historic landmarks in the Geneva Lake region. Built on a 77-acre site in 1897, it became a point of interest for scientists around the nation aspiring to study the stars.


Einstein was among those who walked the halls of the observatory. He conducted experiments there to help prove his theory of relativity.


“Most of the leaders of astronomy in the 20th century spent at least some time here,” Cudworth said. “A few of them most of their careers.”


The future of the facility is less clear.


‘No official statement’

University of Chicago, which owns and operates the observatory, has been trying to sell the center and its land since 2005. There was interest from developers who wanted to build homes on the property, but Williams Bay and a local conservancy group stood in the way.


“The community raised some really strong objections,” Cudworth said. “That’s why the developer’s scheme didn’t fly. The village made it clear that density of residential they didn’t want, but more to the point they’re not going to rezone for a resort on the lakefront.”


Cudworth said the university acknowledged it went the wrong direction trying to sell the land to a developer. It then organized a study group that included community members to review potential uses for the facility.


A final report by the group completed in 2007 recommends the facility transform from a research facility to an education center, strengthening visitors’ knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.


The report indicates the facility could form a consortium and function as an independent organization, allow George Williams College of Aurora University to operate it or some combination of both.


Part of the issue appeared to be funding, according to a preliminary report drafted by the study group earlier in 2007. It found annual operating costs exceeded revenue by about $150,000.


“The study group made its report, and we feel like it was positively received on campus, though it didn’t say anything different from what the faculty committee had said,” Cudworth said. “The university never made any official response (to the study). The official statement is there is no official statement.”


‘To the back burner’

Despite the lack of an official decision, the observatory is pursuing educational programs similar to those described in the study group’s report. The National Science Foundation Centers sponsors programs that help children in urban settings visit Yerkes for academic institutes.


Cudworth said it also is hosting teacher workshops. Yerkes gives regular tours throughout the year, allowing guests to view the sky through its 24-inch telescope.


The University of Chicago planned small upgrades to the Yerkes infrastructure, including stairs and other building upkeep. The long-term future of the observatory is still mostly in question, at least until the economy begins to recover.


Most educational programs are funded through grants and donations, Cudworth said. The university has not tried to establish an endowment.


“The university is going through a lot more serious budget questions than this,” Cudworth said. “This got put to the back burner, and there has not been, to my knowledge, any significant effort to get an endowment.”



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