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Astronomy 'Hobbyist' Designs, Owns World's Largest Privately Owned Telescope

Oct-17-2014

Robert E. Holmes Jr. (left) with EIU President Bill Perry

WESTFIELD, Ill. -- The Earth may someday thank its lucky stars for a 25-cent purchase hastily made nearly a half century ago.

It was then that a young Robert E. Holmes Jr. who, while shopping with his mother at a local dime store, was given a quarter with instructions to buy himself something.  At a loss for what to buy, he waited until his mother who, when done with her own shopping, told him she was ready to go and that he needed to hurry up and choose something.

Holmes picked up a book on astronomy.

“And that was the start of it,” said Steve Daniels, professor and chair of the physics department at Eastern Illinois University.  “A few years later, when he was in high school, Bob was the guy on the roof, looking through telescopes all the time.

“And now, if anybody is protecting us from the sky, it’s Bob,” Daniels said.

On a nightly basis, Holmes quietly monitors the universe.  He does so from his rural Westfield home, located about 10 miles east of Charleston, and he stills uses telescopes – although they’ve graduated greatly in size.

In fact, Holmes recently completed the construction and installation of a 50-inch (size of the mirror) telescope, making him the proud owner of the largest privately owned telescope in the world.  It is the fourth in a collection that also includes a 24-inch, a 30-inch and a 32-inch telescope – each of which has its own outbuilding to keep it safe from the elements.

“The buildings are about 10-feet wide, with roofs that slide straight back,” Daniels said. “Bob did his own design.”

With the exception of the 30-inch scope, which was a collaborative acquisition with EIU, Holmes designed, built and funded each of the scopes much on his own.  He cut steel plates into parts that he then welded together.  He used an engine hoist to move the heavy steel assemblies, including large fork mounts.

“The support systems are amazing,” Daniels said.  “They each are the weight of a Volkswagen; yet, they’re so well balanced, you can move them with one finger.”

Holmes even designed the primary mirror for his recently completed 50-inch scope.  Bob had a close friend, Mike Lockwood of Lockwood Optics in Champaign, Ill., shape the curvature of the glass.  He hired a company, though, to apply the final aluminum coating.

“Bob’s passion for building telescopes and coming up with clever and interesting designs for those telescopes are what helped draw him back to astronomy,” Daniels said.

Holmes had left his hobby for a successful career in commercial magazine photography.  But, in 1999, after attending a meeting of the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society and then a talk by Robert Kirshner, a Harvard College professor of astronomy, Holmes sensed a resurgence of interest in amateur astronomical research.

Beginning with a commercial 16-inch telescope equipped with a CCD camera mounted at the focus, he began acquiring images and data.  In 2002, he founded the not-for-profit Astronomical Research Institute (ARI), allowing him to facilitate outreach to schools, colleges and students.

“From the very beginning, education and public outreach has been an important element in our research,” Holmes told a reporter for Sky & Telescope magazine (December 2011).

Holmes also began refocusing his efforts more on imaging and reporting the positions of asteroids and the occasional comet, including near-Earth objects (NEOs).  He joined hundreds of other observatories – both amateur and professional – that report positions to determine the precise orbits of these objects to the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

According to Daniels, some scientists believe that a mass extinction of dinosaurs occurred thousands upon thousands of years ago due to an asteroid striking the Earth.  Holmes’ work, and that of others like him, is designed to search for and track other objects that could possibly collide with the Earth.

And the stronger the telescope, Daniels added, the better chance one has of detecting such an object early.

“The earlier we know about it, the better chance we have to do something about it,” he added.  “Would you rather learn about something like that 20 years in advance or one day early?”

It was for that very reason that Holmes began researching and building newer and stronger telescopes.  “Making discoveries using the 16-inch reflector became increasingly difficult,” Holmes said, “especially as undiscovered objects became fewer and fainter.”

After completing his 32-inch telescope in the summer of 2006, Holmes spent another year of working days as a photographer and watching the skies at night.  Fortunately, thanks to network cables linking his telescope to his home office, he was able to keep up this vigil from the comfort of his own home.

Images of moving objects conveyed valuable data, including position and size, and were analyzed via special software.  Resulting information was emailed on to the Minor Planet Center.

A year later, NASA – impressed with the quality and quantity of Holmes’ data – awarded him a grant that allowed him to quit his day job and take up his “hobby” full time.

While continuing to watch the skies by night, Holmes devoted his daytime hours to adding a second observatory and building a 24-inch telescope to add to his collection.  In 2008, he produced 11,593 observations of asteroids and NEOs accepted by the MPC --- more than any other individual OR professional observatory in the world.

Holmes thought he could do even better.  With the blessing of his wife Jackie, the couple moved from their home near Charleston to a 40-acre tract of land near nearby Westfield.  The property had more room for observatories; even then, in 2009, Holmes was beginning work on his 50-inch scope.

More importantly, however, was the distance Holmes gained from the distracting, artificial evening light of 24-hour shopping centers, parking lots and apartment complexes.

Working in conjunction with Eastern Illinois University’s Physics Department, Holmes also began work on an observatory for a 30-inch refurbished scope that is primarily run by EIU students via the internet.  That telescope came online in 2010, Daniels said.

“There’s a microwave link between the observatory on Bob’s property and EIU,” he continued.  “It’s Web-based, made possible as a result of a very strong collaborative effort.”

Holmes’ connection with Eastern goes even deeper.

“As an adjunct professor, he hosts our astronomy classes; they go out to his property a couple of times a year, at least,” Daniels said.  “And he works closely with Jim Conwell, the physics professor who built Eastern’s own observatory.

“Students are an integral part of Bob’s work,” he added.  “And not just with students at EIU.  Through his work, Bob reaches about 300 schools in 40 countries, working with students to analyze the multitude of data that he collects.  He helps researchers – both young and old – by making his equipment available to Skynet, an internet-based telescope-sharing network.

“He generates an enormous database of photographs that he collects almost every night, and then uploads it to the Web for others to use.  He holds workshops to train teachers to analyze astronomical data, including how to identify asteroids in a series of photographs, and encourages them to pass this knowledge along to their own students,” Daniels said.

Of course, Holmes does continue to spend many of his nights in solitude, gazing up into the skies.  And he continues to break records for discovering and tracking Near Earth Objects.  In fact, despite the many major observatories, Holmes is responsible for nearly half of all NEO measurements made in 2011.

“In other words, his observatory is responsible for more NEO data that anyplace else in the world,” Daniels said.  “From his observatory in Westfield, Bob Holmes stands guard over our world.”