Utah's amateur astronomers will soon have access to one of the largest public telescopes anywhere — for free.
The new instrument, roughly the size of a school bus, will be opened to public use Saturday with a dedication ceremony and open house at its new locale at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex (SPOC), about 30 miles west of Salt Lake City in Tooele County.
The Salt Lake Astronomical Society is seeking official verification with Guinness World Records, but society members believe their new Clements Telescope, built by a Salt Lake resident, may be the largest of its kind in the world.
The 4 p.m. opening, at 20 Plaza in Stansbury Park, is free and open to the public.
The observatory's director, Rodger Fry, said the new telescope measures 35 feet long, 12 feet wide and 16 feet tall. And while the massive telescope isn't able to penetrate any further into space than the other three telescopes on site at SPOC, he said, because of its width, it can collect more light, making its images more sharply defined.
"You'll be able to see detail in Saturn's rings and Jupiter's bands," Fry said.
Saturday's viewing schedule includes both of those giant planets, but Fry said guests will also view distant nebulae and galaxies, directly and in great detail.
Mike Clements, who built the telescope in a friend's backyard over the course of 18 months, said his creation is unique among telescopes of its size. Generally, he said, such telescopes use digital cameras to capture images. But the Clements telescope is built so the viewers look through the eyepiece.
Clements built the telescope around a 70-inch mirror purchased at auction. He said it was most likely U.S. military surplus, possibly made during the Cold War for use in a spy satellite.
Clements, a professional truck driver who's made hundreds of telescopes, said he taught himself to build the astronomical instruments, simply by taking them apart and putting them back together.
This one, though, is his dream telescope, he said. Before Clements began construction, "I had built it in my head many times, over and over."
Once the telescope was completed, the Salt Lake Astronomical Society approached Clements about having it permanently installed at SPOC, an observatory complex run by the society for use by amateur astronomers and the general public and often open for free star parties on summer weekends.
Fry said the society raised $72,000 in donations to construct what has been dubbed the Kolob Observatory building to house the Clements telescope.
Moving the telescope from his friend's yard and installing it at SPOC was a "monumental task," Clements said, and as of Friday evening he was still working on final details.
"I am so excited," he said. "I am sure I won't sleep tonight, though I will try, because I intend to be using the telescope all night tomorrow night, to show it to people."