The University of Central Florida has had Robinson Observatory only since the mid-1990s, but the complete story extends much farther back than that.
In 1968, Tinsley Laboratories built a Schmidt-Cassegrain reflecting telescope for the University of South Florida’s observatory. The telescope had a 26-inch (0.66-m) primary mirror, and this telescope was used until the astronomy program at USF closed down and merged with the Astronomy Department at the University of Florida in 1982. At that point, the 26-inch telescope was dismantled and placed into storage in Gainesville.
Fast forward to 1990. The Central Florida Astronomical Society (CFAS) learned of the telescope’s condition and went up to Gainesville to see if it could be salvaged. CFAS began working with UCF to bring the telescope to Orlando, and an agreement was reached whereby UCF would build an observatory to house the telescope and CFAS would move the telescope and restore it to operating condition. Thus the seeds of telescopic astronomy at UCF were sown. CFAS moved the 26-inch telescope from Gainesville to UCF on February 13, 1992, and began restoring it.
The Orlando Sentinel ran an article about the telescope which caught the attention of Herbert O. and Susan C. Robinson. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson were well known to the UCF community as benefactors; in fact Mr. Robinson was a UCF Founder. He donated a significant fraction of the funds necessary for UCF to build the observatory building. As a result, the observatory would be called Robinson Observatory in recognition of Mr. Robinson’s generous contribution. The groundbreaking ceremony was in January 1994, and construction began in that November. The telescope was installed in June 1995; the mechanical assembly was completed and the optics installed a few months later, in September.
The observatory and telescope were officially dedicated on April 25, 1996. Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson had passed way on August 12, 1995, but Mrs. Robinson attended the dedication and helped cut the ribbon. The 26-inch Tinsley was then put to use by many UCF students and CFAS members. In addition, the observatory was opened to the public for twice-monthly observing sessions. For several years, the Tinsley telescope brought astronomy to the UCF community and beyond.
In the early 2000s, UCF made a strategic decision to expand its astronomy program with new faculty hires, new courses, and some additional funding for the observatory. In 2004, Robinson Observatory purchased a suite of portable 8- and 14-inch telescopes (Meade models LX90 and LX200). These telescopes, which we still use today on the observatory’s front lawn, were incorporated into both the educational and outreach missions of UCF.
Unfortunately, by 2004, it became clear to both UCF and CFAS that the Tinsley telescope was no longer able to provide the quality observing experience that it should without significant repairs and upgrades. UCF students and CFAS members had been valiantly dedicating much time and effort to the preservation of the Tinsley, but the time and funding situations finally forced the issue. It was decided that, instead of finding financial support to repair the Tinsley, it would be more cost-effective to create an entirely new and more modern observing setup at Robinson Observatory. Energetic and enthusiastic UCF students, in particular Paul Gardner, took charge of this idea and ran with it. They drew up extensive plans for a future facility for the observing floor.
In 2006, faculty in the Physics Department convinced the College of Sciences to support a new start for the observatory. This was soon after the College of Arts and Sciences had split into two separate colleges, and fortuitously, thanks to the earlier efforts of UCF students, the astronomy group was ready with a fully costed-out proposal to present to the new Dean of the College of Sciences, Dr. Peter Panousis. Funds were soon provided to purchase a new primary telescope, a new mount, modern instruments, and computer systems to run everything inside the dome. Additional funding was then also obtained from the Fund for Astrophysical Research. At last, Robinson Observatory would finally be able to complete the mission triad by adding a research program to its education and outreach missions.
In 2007, the Tinsley telescope was lifted out of the observatory building (and donated to the Eastern Florida State College observatory) to make room for the new equipment. Purchases were made, and soon the Robinson Observatory’s newest additions arrived: a 20-inch telescope from RC Optical Systems Inc. and a sturdy German Equatorial mount built by Mathis Instruments. Installation soon began and commissioning then followed in earnest, led by Nate Lust. As has always been the case with our observatory, students took a starring role in the creation of our new observing setup.
We now move to the present day. The 20-inch has become an important tool for astronomy faculty and students here at UCF. Research programs are being conducted at the facility. While a 20-inch telescope is not so large compared to professional facilities in Hawaii, Arizona, or Chile, Robinson Observatory’s niche is to tackle astronomy in the time-domain. Since we can use the telescope at a moment’s notice, we have designed research programs that require short-, medium-, and/or long-term monitoring of astronomical phenomena.
In 2015, a grant from the UCF Technology Fee Committee allowed us to purchase new portable Meade telescopes and accessories that allow us to expand the educational and outreach offerings at Robinson Observatory. This equipment is now used by undergraduates and graduate students in several astronomy courses, and has let us hold more events for the public and for the UCF community.
- News article about the observatory’s origins, from the Orlando Sentinel.
- Obituary for Mr. Herbert O. Robinson, from the Orlando Sentinel.
- CFAS’s photos of the Tinsley and of the Observatory itself.
Directors of Robinson Observatory
- Jan 1996 – Aug 2002: Dr. Nadine Barlow (now at NAU)
- Aug 2002 – Jan 2004: Dr. Humberto Campins
- Jan 2004 – May 2005: Dr. Laura Woodney (now at CSUSB)
- May 2005 – Aug 2009: Dr. Dan Britt
- Aug 2009 – present: Dr. Yan Fernandez
Assistant Directors of Robinson Observatory
- 2003 – 2007: Paul Gardner
- 2007 – 2014: Nate Lust