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He Lends a Helping Hand to Stargazers

Associated Press

One need not be an astronaut to travel in space, visit the stars or get a closer view of the planets.

Richard Fagin, a concert violinist, can help stargazers take a celestial journey--not through heavenly music, but via the magic of parabolic mirrors.

Fagin is a telescope maker, one of a handful in the country who still make--by hand--the integral mirrors that enable us to view the outer worlds.

“Anyone can make a telescope if they have the patience,” Fagin said.

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Fagin, 31, a Chicago native, is the owner and the only employee of Summit Instruments, which has provided telescopic optics for professional and amateur astronomers since 1981.

He made his first telescope at age 13.

Enthralled by Sky Show

“I was studying music at Lane Technical High School in Chicago and went to a sky show at Adler Planetarium. That was it,” Fagin said.

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At a planetarium workshop there, Fagin made a 6-inch mirror for his first telescope.

“I still have it and use it.”

Soon after, he finished a 10-inch mirror for another teen-ager, and he has been making custom optics ever since.

“I think I charged him $10. I didn’t care about the money,” he said.

What determines the quality of a telescope is the exactness and uniformity of a concave mirror used to reflect light to a single point--that which is to be viewed.

“Accuracy is to a millionth of an inch. That’s the tricky part,” said Fagin, who uses an overturned 55-gallon drum as a workbench. “They can get close with a machine, but there’s no comparison to handmade.”

Made to Order

Fagin makes custom mirrors ranging from 6 inches in diameter to 20 inches--the larger the mirror, the greater resolution and detail.

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The mirrors are made from Pyrex blanks. A curve-generating machine puts the initial shape to the glass; the hand grinding follows, using abrasive silicon carbide and a convex-shaped tool.

“It can take up to three days of hand rubbing to get it right,” Fagin said. As the mirror nears completion, the grinding process becomes more delicate. Repetitive measuring is a must.

Near completion, minute pits in the glass must be rubbed away and a film of aluminum, only one or two molecules thick, is coated onto the mirror. This is done in a vacuum chamber where a small amount of aluminum is vaporized under intense heat.

The final check is done in a 14-foot wooden chamber where a special machine reflects a beam of light off the polished surface.

Wide Range of Prices

The prices of Fagin’s mirrors range from $175 for a 6-inch mirror to $2,000 for a 20-inch one.

For those who wish to make their own, the cost is much less.

Fagin recommends aluminum tubing for the shell. The remaining parts required to complete a telescope are available through specialty companies.

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Fagin continues to follow both careers--music and optics. Having studied music for four years at the Chicago Musical College, he often plays professionally with south Florida symphony orchestras.

“This is more important to me,” he said, checking a 10-inch mirror, “and I make more money.”


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