What will happen to Yerkes Observatory when it closes its doors?

March 28, 2018, 8:23 a.m.
The entrance to the Yerkes Observatory
Photo: Robert Goode/Shutterstock

The birthplace of modern astrophysics could be closing it doors by the beginning of October.

The Yerkes Observatory, located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, has long been supported by the University of Chicago. But the university has shifted funding for its research efforts to the Magellan and Giant Magellan telescopes in Chile, leaving the observatory without much of a role. While the University of Chicago hasn't conducted research from Yerkes since the mid-1960s, the observatory still has been used for instructional and outreach programs. Those programs will now move to the university's Hyde Park campus. Events planned at Yerkes until Oct. 1 will still be held.

"Unfortunately, operating Yerkes no longer makes sense for the University from a programmatic or cost standpoint. Drawing to a close our operations there is the first step in a collaborative process to determine the ultimate disposition of the buildings and property," David Fithian, executive vice president of the university, said in a statement released March 7.

Founded in 1897, the Yerkes Observatory houses the world's largest refracting (lens-based) telescope, 40 inches (1 meter) in diameter and 63 feet (19 meters) in length. The entire 90-foot-diameter observatory dome must rotate to move the telescope, and the floor of the telescope's room moves up and down so the telescope can be angled correctly.

Many notable astronomers, including Edwin Hubble, Carl Sagan and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (the namesake for the Chandra Observatory) all conducted research at the Yerkes at one time or another.

By announcing its withdrawal of support roughly six months in advance, it's hoped that some agreement regarding the fate of the observatory and its 77 acres can be reached. There are currently no announced or engaged buyers. The president of the Williams Bay village, which features the observatory in its official seal, hopes that it can function as a museum for students, even while acknowledging the financial difficulties that such an endeavor would entail.

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