The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

An infinite passion for the sky


September 14, 2019

Tom LaVenture/Daily Globe

Jim Kaufman shows the home observatory he built on his roof in Ironwood. The 12 inch Cassegrain reflector telescope has a GPS polar mount that can make alignment corrections and track objects using software.


Ironwood - Jim Kaufman achieved many goals in life before following through on his passion for astronomy.

He was an aerospace engineer. He earned a private pilot's license. He retired before age 55.

Kaufman said his fascination with the sky and the universe was fueled by a childhood immersed in science and science fiction. Growing up in the Flats of Ironwood, he recalls chasing what he thought was a UFO flying north at night with his friends.

"When I started high school my mind was focused on the wonders of the universe and I thought about the sky and stars and are we alone and that sort of thing," Kaufman said. "It was an everyday part of my life."

He considered pursuing astronomy in college but opted for a more lucrative career in aerospace engineering. He worked for several airplane manufacturers on the West Coast before retiring at age 52 and returning to Ironwood.

Kaufman said his interest in astronomy returned after viewing images from the Hubble Space Telescope. As the internet brought together communities of stargazers his hunger for knowledge grew with those conversations.

Now retired, he could stay up late planet watching and sought a telescope for his budget. In 2004 he bought a 12-inch Cassegrain reflector telescope with a GPS polar mount that can make alignment corrections and track objects using software.

A scope of this size can capture a lot of detail on the relatively few clear nights for stargazing in the Upper Peninsula. He didn't choose a deep space telescope that is configured for viewing more distant objects.

"A deep space imager is a whole other ball game," Kaufmann said. "With deep space you go to a position where you can't see the target and so you have to burn it in. You might have three or four 15 minute shots with the lens open until you get enough light to where you start pulling out the image."

View nebula and galaxies is ideal at high elevations with low atmospheric disturbance, he said. The telescopes are very expensive and while the colorful images are rewarding the viewing here isn't optimal, he said.

"I've always been interested in the deep space stuff but I kind of concentrated on the solar system and so I have a lunar-planetary imager," Kaufman said.

The telescope and it's base are over 100 pounds together and hauling it out of his garage and setting it up took a lot of time away from viewing. If the telescope and base were stationary it would need to be aligned just once for the onboard computer to locate and track objects.

"I thought, I've got to build an observatory," Kaufman said.

The first idea was for a backyard observatory at his home at the corner of Hedin Avenue and North Lake Street. The garage was another consideration but the cabling used to send telescope images to his computer made going above the den the obvious choice.

He designed a square space with walls that rise a few feet above the roof line. He insulated and water-proofed the space with the help of a construction company and installed an observatory dome with overlapping sides rather than seals to prevent deterioration from moisture buildup.

An electric motor allows the dome to turn 360 degrees and a shutter assembly opens and closes for the telescope. The same sky alignment is still working today and allowed him to concentrate on viewing.

Viewing requires the temperature in the observatory to be the same as outside, he said. The insulated floor keeps heat from escaping through the dome or it would distort the images, he said.

Kaufman recalled his frustration in the earliest efforts to line up on the giant planets. Other amateur astronomers helped him through the technical issues with the scope and imaging software and suggestions for optimal viewing.

"I think I remember going up there nightly for around six months," he said. "I took a lot of photos and couldn't do anything with them."

Then one night he saw Saturn like he hadn't seen it before. It was crystal clear, he said.

"The bands and all the colors were all there," Kaufmann said. "I almost fell down the stairs getting to the computer so I could get to my imager and start taking some pictures."

Kaufman found the same fascination with Jupiter. The planet is so bright and large with bands of clouds moving so fast that it required less than a 2 minute exposure to capture the clarity. With other planets the exposure time might be 15 minutes, he said.

"Through the years there were just those few moments but those moments are awesome," Kaufman said. "You just don't get that feeling all the time."

An online forum mentioned a meteor or comet was seen entering the south pole of Jupiter, he said. Jupiter was in view that night and he said could still see where the object had slashed through gaseous clouds.

"I said, "that is awesome,"" Kaufmann said.

The highlight for Mars was capturing it in 2018 when it was just 54 million miles away from earth as compared to its normal distance of 225 million miles. This meant the image size would increase by 50 percent and he created a sequence of 16 pictures showing the size differences over four months.

The rest of the planets appear as a single color. Mercury is only visible a few times of the year and it's very small and can be seen at sunrise and sunset a few times a year.

Kaufmann has a sun filter to prevent damaging the telescope and his eyes. He wanted to view the 2018 solar eclipse but the clouds were too thick, he said.

Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are also small and without much resolution using a home based telescope, he said. Neptune appears bluish and the rest of them are drab without any features to observe.

The sky can also be deceiving, Kaufman said. It might appear to be clear but there are almost always particle and atmospheric conditions that can distort images, he said.

The best first view for someone interested in astronomy is with the naked eye, he said. If the night sky seems clear then go outside and look straight up, he said.

What appears to be a big band of clouds across the sky is actually the stars of our Milky Way spiral galaxy, he said. The first time he saw it Kaufmann said it took his breath away.

"You don't have that many nights that are that clear to see it and it doesn't happen that often," he said.

Telescope observing can be stressful, he said. More often than not it isn't rewarding for the amount of time and work spent trying to capture an object, he said.

"You've got to have that patience," Kaufman said. "You've got to have the perfect night, and you got to have your objects."


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