Stars align for Utah man to build world’s largest amateur telescope

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Courtesy of Salt Lake Astronomical Society

STANSBURY PARK, Utah (ABC4) – Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are?

Getting closer to answering the question sang in the popular nursery rhyme has always been the goal and objective of astronomy.

Salt Lake City native Mike Clements has made his hobby of better understanding the stars into a community gift that can provide one of the best and most approachable ways in the world to get an up-close view of the stars.

Using a military-grade 70-inch wide mirror that was intended for use on a spy satellite, Clements has built what he claims to be the largest amateur-made, publicly available optical telescope on earth.

“Spy satellites don’t just fall from the sky,” Clements says, setting up one of his favorite jokes.

“Actually, they do,” he adds with a laugh, delivering the punchline.

A longtime enthusiast with decades of building his own telescopes in varying shapes and sizes, Clements’ friends reached out to him with an interesting offer. They had located a declassified spy satellite mirror, nearly two meters in diameter, which was up for sale. Clements, a truck driver by trade, jumped at the opportunity.

A Perseid meteor streaks across the sky above a camping site at the Negev desert near the city of Mitzpe Ramon in Israel on August 11, 2020, during the Perseids meteor shower. (Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Using a bit of ingenuity, elbow grease, and a lot of materials he says can be found at Walmart or Home Depot, Clements completed his biggest project to date, the self-named Clements Telescope.

Getting his hands on a mirror not meant for civilian use was, in his words, “a fluke.”

“To my knowledge, nobody else, no other individual, owns one of these things. It’s just too odd to get a hold of,” Clements explains.

“All the stars had to align,” he continues, apologizing for another cheesy pun.

After getting wind of what Clements had in his garage, the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, a group recognized as part of NASA’s Night Sky Network, reached out with an interesting offer. Representatives asked if they could provide a building to house the telescope and host public star-viewing parties to share Clements’ invention with the public.

He happily agreed.

“I thought they were joking at first I was like, ‘Oh yeah, sure, then we’ll also build a rocket to go to the moon,’ and they’re like, ‘Mike, we’re serious,’” Clemens recalls.

The rest of history.

Now, the telescope rests in a place of honor by a baseball field in Tooele County, known as the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex. Every week, the telescope is rolled out of its building and brought for the Society’s Star Party, which is free to the public. After taking a bit of time off due to the pandemic, the Star Parties are expected to return to normal attendance numbers of around 200 stargazers and families.

Courtesy of Salt Lake Astronomical Society

“It is a very, very awesome sight to see and look through,” Salt Lake Astronomical Society Vice President Jamie Bradley states of the telescope. “You can see quite a bit of detail and a lot of different objects in the sky.”

During the peak of the Perseids meteor shower on Wednesday, Bradley says a bunch of astronomy fans went out and enjoyed the show on a nice, clear night. Meteor showers, he says, can pique a person’s interest in astronomy.

“With meteor showers and stuff like that, people get to get some looking at and it gets them curious,” Bradley explains. “Curiosity is the basic drive in humans, they want to learn more about what’s out there.”

Many of the most excited and curious folks at the star parties are the littlest ones there. Many attendees come as families, and looking through the giant Clements Telescope always seems to get the kids fired up, Bradley says.

“We love families, the kids are awesome. They’re just so interested and amazed by what they look at.”

Even though Clements is in his sixties, well past the age of the youngest star party-goers, he can still relate to that feeling of childlike wonder while gazing through his telescope. It’s a big reason why he has made it available for many to enjoy.

“I still react like a little kid every time I look through it. This is a passion of mine. I enjoy the telescope and looking through it directly, and I share that view with my friends. That’s what I’m all about, just sharing.”

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