Mind Bending<br>Cottonwood man revolutionizes telescopes<br>
Nobody had ever thought of bending glass mirrors before, but Bill Kelley did it 10 years ago, clearing the way for a revolutionary class of lightweight, high-quality, reflector telescopes.
He improved his method, which tensions a steel screw glued to the center of the mirror back, with the help of Yavapai College adjunct astronomy professor Howard Moore of Chino Valley.
The process forms an extremely smooth surface in the shape of a parabola, perfect for seeing celestial objects with a clarity generations of sky watchers only dreamed about.
The telescopic community's response to Kelley's pioneering work on the "flexed" mirror has been, well, astronomical.
Amateurs and top experts in the field have noticed his low-tech method and the stunning night views it makes possible.
Some, believing it's one of the most important innovations in optics since the 17th Century, traveled to Kelley's home in Cottonwood to learn more. Inquiries from Goddard Space Center's Peter Chen followed, and now it seems that NASA might use Kelley's concept for its 2020 project to put a 2-meter telescope on the moon.
"It's the best place to put a telescope – on nice, solid bedrock – to view deep space and solar system objects," said Moore, 57. "It'll be like a super Hubble."
Unlike the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope with mirror-fouling thruster jets blasting frequently to keep it on track, the 2020 scope will make only one revolution per month, Moore explained. Unprecedented photos of the heavens should be possible, even commonplace, from such an instrument.
Not only is the flexed mirror lightweight, it requires a shorter telescope, another plus for a trip to Earth's nearest neighbor.
Kelley, 84, made his first telescope at age 10. In 1991, he had retired to Utah from a career in which he developed artificial seawater, making possible construction of inland salt-water aquariums and marine laboratories worldwide. At a telescope conference, he bought some surplus six-inch spherical mirrors that were supposedly for telescopic use. They wouldn't work.
"My wife said I sulked around the house for two days realizing I'd been stung, trying to think of ways to get out of it short of putting a contract on the guy that sold them to me," he said. "Then I came up with the idea that glass has no structure and its ability to bend is well known. It's regularly spun into fiberglass."
Kelley remembered that even thicker pieces of glass bend noticeably.
"Look at the big windows in department stores when the wind is blowing, and you'll see the reflections wobbling around from the glass bending," he continued. "So I looked at the different shapes that were needed, and decided if I could prop up the edge of one of these mirrors with a supporting ring and attach a tension to the center of it, I could bend it enough to correct it."
Struck by the possibilities of his invention, he published findings in the June 1992 "Sky & Telescope" magazine. They intrigued Stanford University mechanical engineering lecturer Alan Adler, who has about 70 U.S. and foreign patents in diverse fields ranging from opto-electronics to flying toys. Adler joined Kelley several years ago to help with math and computer programming.
Then, building on Kelley's seminal work, Adler created the software, "Flex," to help users evaluate their telescope mirror shapes. Recently, Adler filed for a patent on the flexed mirror in the name of Kelley, Moore and himself.
Moore is a retired computer programmer who lives in Chino Valley. Moore, who has taught astronomy at Yavapai College since 1997, has made telescopes for 37 years. Most of the time, though, they had hand-figured, parabolic surfaces. Four years ago, he teamed up with Kelley to make a flexed mirror, which added new dimension to his work.
At first, Kelley and Moore made the mirrors to satisfy their personal curiosity. Now, it looks like fame and commercial success may be on the horizon.
Both scientists are excited that their work could actually be of use to somebody.
"There's the distinct possibility that we're on the forefront of something that will revolutionize mirror making," Moore said. "To get other people interested in it, and especially to get NASA interested in it because they might buy the patent on it, is something we never expected."
Over the years, Kelley has made other innovations in telescope design and construction. After developing artificial seawater, he founded Mystic (Conn.) Marinelife Aquarium. He still serves on its board of directors. Further, he is a former director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Recently, he began helping Moore teach telescope-making classes at Yavapai College.
"We live under really nice skies out here," Kelley said. "This lets people learn something about them and gain an interest in the sciences."
Kelley's wife of 13 years, Lois, took the class.
"It helped me appreciate how much work goes into one of these," she said. "If I go into the shop and Bill is doing something, now I understand more about it."
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