Why these people build telescopes from scratch

Thousands of astronomy enthusiasts are literally taking stargazing into their own hands. Here’s how and why they do it.

Photograph by Robert Ormerod
Read Caption

A detail of the moon photographed using a Celestron telescope.

A young girl peers through a telescope at Scope X, the biggest amateur telescope-making and science outreach festival in Africa, which takes place every year in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Photograph by Robert Ormerod

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that we live beneath a shifting canopy of stars. Humanity has woven its dreams and mythologies into the night sky for millennia, yet it can often seem inaccessible or impossibly far away—the realm of space telescopes, celebrity astronauts, and professional astronomers in mountaintop observatories.

View Images

Telescopes seem to sprout from the fields of Vermont during the Stellafane amateur telescope-making and astronomy festival.

For some people, though, there is a way to bring the stars closer and literally take stargazing into their own hands: building telescopes from scratch. These projects take a bit of derring-do, training, tools, and calculations. But in the end, you might craft an instrument capable of seeing hundreds of deep-sky objects, the colorful clouds wrapping themselves around Jupiter, crisp lunar craters, or the dark spots pockmarking the sun. (Quiz: Can you identify the constellations of the zodiac?)

If that sounds like a monumental effort, in some cases, it is. Grinding and polishing the mirrors that reflect and concentrate light can take hundreds of hours.

“I couldn’t do it myself,” says photographer Robert Ormerod, who recently photographed two gatherings of amateur telescope makers. “I just found it really amazing, the commitment to building these instruments.”

Johan Landman, an aircraft technician, is one of those makers. A self-described hands-on person who enjoys building and tinkering, Landman says he’s always been fascinated by everything about astronomy.

“As a kid, I had been collecting any and all things optical—spectacle lenses, old broken binoculars lenses, cameras,” says Landman, who’s based in Johannesburg, South Africa. “I would then hold these together in all kinds of different orientations and sometimes got an image! By doing this, I unknowingly taught myself all the basics, and it just piqued my curiosity even more.”

Landman studied telescope design and ultimately learned how to build them from scratch. Now, he enjoys sharing that lifelong passion with his 15-year-old daughter Leané. Together, the pair stargaze, rebuild and modify old telescopes, and take their creations on the road.

“Leané has been helping in the workshop probably since she could walk,” Landman says. “She started to show interest in observing from about age 6, and we got her a small telescope for Christmas when she was nine.”

For her, the idea of using something she helped design and build to see the night sky is very satisfying, plus there’s the added bonus of possessing a rather rare and impressive skill.

Festivals for amateur telescope makers like Johan and Leané take place all over the world. One of the largest in the United States is called Stellafane, and it takes place every August in Springfield, Vermont. Ormerod photographed the 2018 gathering, where telescopes grew from the grass like intricate sculptures, and a thousand people amassed to admire the sky using local handiwork.

“I was really interested in what these people get from building these telescopes, and what they get from looking at the night sky,” Ormerod says.

View Images

This homemade instrument is used to demonstrate the inner workings of telescopes during the Scope X festival in South Africa.

For years, Ormerod has been documenting the variety of Earthlings who feel a special connection with space, whether it’s through telescope-making, aurora-hunting, simulated Mars missions, or amateur rocket-building. For him, part of the allure is getting closer to the cosmos himself.

“I suppose it’s about how the stars make you feel when you look at them,” Ormerod says. “It really makes you feel small, but also shows you this wondrous thing that’s always there.”

Last month, Ormerod visited South Africa to photograph Scope X, the largest amateur telescope and science outreach gathering on the continent. That’s where he met the Landmans—and where he saw Saturn through a telescope for the first time.

“That was really cool,” he says. “I’d never seen any of these planets up close.”

After photographing the Scope X festival, Ormerod traveled to Sutherland, in the country’s interior. There, he spent two days waiting for the weather to clear and the stars to appear. After the clouds had parted and the moon had set, he ventured outside and was immediately struck by a sky so saturated with stars it almost seemed to be pressing down upon him.

“It was just a crazy amount of stars—like more stars than dark, if you know what I mean,” he recalls.

View Images

An amateur astronomer sets up his telescope after sun has gone down at Stellafane.

That kind of experience is what he and Landman hope to impart to the next generation of backyard stargazers and telescope makers.

“I believe that it is very important instill a sense of curiosity and interest in astronomy in the young ones,” Landman says. “Today most kids are looking down—onto and into phones, tablets, or the latest electronic game—instead of looking up and enjoying the wonders of our universe, the way that Galileo and our other forefathers have done in the past.”