The 16-inch telescope was designed by Racine Astronomical Society member Ronald E. Jones in 1963 and built with donations from a number of local manufacturers who fabricated the parts and donated materials.
Racine Astronomical Society president Brian Jensen (left) and observatory director Mark Schmidt welcome visitors to the Modine-Benstead Observatory.
BY KATIE MATTESON
Have you ever gazed up at the night sky and wished you could ask somebody who knew more about astronomy to tell you what you were seeing and explain it to your kids? Did you ever have the opportunity to get away from the city lights and see how many more stars, planets and constellations are visible? Have you ever looked at our moon, Mars, Jupiter or Saturn through a telescope?
Did you know that the Racine Astronomical Society has a place where you can do all those things right here in Racine County? It’s the Modine-Benstead Observatory, located at 112 63rd Dr. (four miles west of Interstate 94 at the intersection with County Road A) in Yorkville. And admission is free during public nights held once a month from April through October.
Mark your calendar for the next open houses on Friday, Aug. 10 and Friday, Sept. 14 from 8-11 p.m. and for the Fall Astronomy Day on Saturday, Oct. 13 from 7-10 p.m.
Society members host more than 1,000 visitors per year and welcome their guests to look through the 16-inch telescope in the observatory or the 14-inch telescope in the smaller domed building. Several members also bring their personal telescopes on the grounds to share the stellar views and their knowledge of astronomy.
Kids are also invited to participate in the Telescope Scavenger Hunt. They will receive a card and earn stickers from society members when they locate a constellation and view a moon, planet, star cluster, nebula and galaxy. Those who return their completed cards on the Fall Astronomy Day will receive an Observer’s Certificate and be entered into a drawing for a telescope and other door prizes.
The Racine Astronomical Society held its first meeting in August of 1956 and in 1960 became a not-for-profit corporation. And thanks to the generosity of two local businessmen, they were able to leave their meeting space at the Racine YWCA where they talked about astronomy and take up residence at their own observatory where they could clearly see the points of light in the sky.
Club members A.B. Modine, founder of Modine Manufacturing Company and H.M. Benstead, chief executive officer of Western Publishing Company, donated funds for the purchase of 3.5 acres of land, construction of the observatory and a 16-inch telescope. Construction began in 1961 and the dedication took place in October 1963.
Members were involved in both the design and construction of the observatory. Founding member Ron Jones, who worked as the vice president of manufacturing for Styberg Engineering Company, designed the telescope. The club dedicated the Ronald E. Jones Memorial Telescope on July 11, 2013, to honor him a few months after his death.
While Jones and other club members participated in the design effort, many local industries helped make the parts of the telescope. Local manufacturers fabricated the patterns for the molds, cast the parts, heat treated and machined the parts. Many other local businesses donated parts and materials needed for the construction.
The concrete pier used to support the 2-ton telescope mount was the tallest single pour done in Southeast Wisconsin at the time.
In the end, the out of pocket cost for the telescope was only $2,500 and the telescope was the envy of all amateur astronomers.
The project even made the cover of Sky and Telescope magazine.
“The telescope is still as impressive today as it was back then,” said Brian Jensen, society president and member since 1977. “In fact, it actually performs better because the telescope mirrors that were made at the Kitt Peak Observatory have been recoated with new high performance coatings that reflect more light.”
Observatory Director Mark Schmidt enjoys taking people into the “Awesomeness Room” to give them their first close-up look at rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter. “We never get tired of hearing the ‘wows,’” he said.
Schmidt loves astronomy, but is especially enamored (some might say obsessed) with Mars. He’s been sending photos and data to the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers for 30+ years.
“Back in the 1990s, we used to send boxes full of slides,” Schmidt said. “Today we send digital images.”
In 2003 and 2005, when Mars orbit passed closest to Earth, Schmidt said he didn’t get more than a couple hours of sleep a night because he couldn’t stop documenting his favorite planet. The same thing likely happened at the end of July when Mars was expected to make another close pass.
Jensen said he likes to watch the moons of Jupiter rotating around the planet and the moons casting shadows on the face of the planet. He also likes to observe deep-sky objects (located beyond our solar system) like star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.
As members of the Racine Astronomical Society, Schmidt and Jensen have the opportunity to spend a lot of time at the observatory during Saturday evening members nights, star parties, meetings and other special events. Members in good standing are also provided keyholder benefits to access society property and equipment for personal use or research.
Memberships start at $45 per year and are open to anyone age 16 or over.
While memberships, donations collected at public nights and a small investment fund take care day-to-day operations, the society has recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $18,000 to replace the leaky roof of the storage building and establish a maintenance fund to take care of other needed repairs to the 55-year-old buildings.
For more information, call (262) 878-2774 or visit rasastro.org.