DEC 27, 2013 12:00 AM PST

Cold War Surplus: Truck Driver Builds 70-inch Telescope with Spy Satellite Mirror!

WRITTEN BY: Jen Ellis
How does a 900-pound mirror manufactured to be the primary component of a United States military spy satellite end up as the central element of a long-haul truck driver's homemade telescope?

It is as they say: "Only in America."

Mike Clements is a long-distance truck driver from West Jordan, Utah. A lifelong amateur astronomer and lover of telescopes, Clements had long dreamed of building one of his own. And by dream, we mean "dream big".

So it was that in 2005, Clements went to a government auction and came home with a nearly half-tone, 70-inch diameter mirror. It was intended to be used in one of the satellites from the KH-12 series: a set of "eye-in-the-sky" optics aimed at the ground to monitor the Soviet Union and other threats to America at the height of the Cold War. This particular mirror however was never launched: a chip on the edge during manufacture made it unusable for an ultra-precision instrument like a spy satellite. But it would have been a travesty of optical technology to let an otherwise perfectly good mirror go to waste.

So Clements bought the mirror, and during his 2,000-miles every week of being on the road for six days a plot began to unfold about how to use it. Bearing in mind the design of already-existing telescopes, Mike Clements began envisioning how to adapt it into something that would support a substantially larger mirror.

The result is truly a work of individual ingenuity and personal love: a 35-foot tall structure of pipe and steel supporting the 70-inch primary mirror, and a 29-inch secondary focusing mirror. The eyepiece is located an astonishing 249 inches from the focus, thus obligating the enormous size. And indeed: it is thought that Clements' is the largest optical telescope in the world built by an amateur astronomer. Clements even silvered the surface himself: something that few amateurs have attempted and which gives even seasoned optical experts reason to hesitate. But on his second attempt at silvering, Clements pulled off a flawless victory.

Unfortunately everything on Clements' rig - which he has named KH-12 in honor of the progenitor satellite - is hand-adjusted. And there is no clock drive, which would allow for classic astrophotography. But even so, the results have been astonishing. Because of Clements' passion, a mirror once in the same class as that of the Hubble Space Telescope can now zoom in on individual craters of the Moon with breathtaking detail. Representatives of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been "agog" at the workmanship of the telescope and what it has already proven capable of achieving.

Mike Clements isn't through yet with his telescope, however. Once he realized that there was such interest in his project, he chose to make it portable. The KH-12 can be taken apart and re-assembled practically anywhere, and Clements is currently seeking funding for a special trailer that will allow him to bring his telescope throughout Utah and beyond, including national parks across America.
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