Star Struck: Armagh's Centuries-Old Observatory Tracks the Universe in Style
By Christine Doughty
Cathedral bells toll in the distance as you climb Robinson Drive. Seen through lush vegetation, circular towers stand as a relic of timeless ingenuity. At the top of the hill lies the Armagh Observatory, a modern day science center in a shell of Georgian architecture. Here the mysteries of the celestial sphere have been explored for almost two hundred years.
When picturing the observatory, it is easy to imagine huge space domes with stellar telescopes, hi-tech gear, and sterile grounds. The Armagh Observatory, by contrast, is small, beautifully appointed, and rich with eighteenth and nineteenth century history. It is surprising such an active science center is located here, in such a small city.
The difference between imagination and reality, though, is that the observatory building is not colossal or intimidating, yet wonderful things happen here. Astronomers and astrophysicists are conducting research on the pulsations of subluminous 'B' stars - those made up almost entirely of dense molecular helium - stars that provide clues about the evolution and exchange of stellar gases in the universe. The scientists of Armagh are also studying ultra rare stars that reignite into yellow supergiants after shrinking into white dwarfs and stellar cinders. And the observatory's new meteor video camera system, which began recording data in July 2005, is detecting more than 100 meteors a month as part of a cooperative project with a U.S. astronomer.
These are just a few of the Armagh observatory projects, which also include tracking climate change in Ireland and contributing to worldwide data. The site is amazingly rich given how modest the equipment seems to be. And the building itself is not much larger than a normal house.
The main observatory building is two stories high. On the outside, sturdy stonework complements the green domes that cover the precious telescopes inside. Beautiful gardens create a serene atmosphere where visitors can find themselves strolling along stone and gravel paths. After finally entering into the Armagh Observatory on an arranged visit, a guest is greeted by a congenial atmosphere that welcomes anyone.
John McFarland is the observatory's informative librarian who often gives tours. Downstairs the visitor learns of the observatory's history, past directors, telescopes, astronomical clocks, and amazing discoveries made right in Armagh.
In the 1780s, Archbishop Richard Robinson wanted to build the first university of Ulster in Armagh. This city was chosen because of its history and also because the observatory would help restore the prestige lost in previous centuries due to invasions by Vikings, Normans, and other peoples. The archbishop's personal architect, Francis Johnston, created the blueprints for the observatory and in 1789 construction began. The main telescope arrived in 1795, delayed because of financial confusion in the aftermath of Robinson's death.
A few affluent directors at the observatory have helped put Armagh's stargazing on the international map. Thomas Romney Robinson was its director from 1823 to 1882. He designed the cup-anemometer for the measurement of wind speed along with a catalogue of more than five thousand stars observed in Armagh. He also was able to put an addition onto the observatory and to obtain a mural circle, a kind of telescope.
Another director, John Louis Emil Dreyer collected information for his volume, New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars in 1888. The original copy remains in the observatory to this day. One of the most influential directors was Dr. Eric Mervyn Lindsay. He was able to secure a cooperative relationship between the Armagh Observatory, the Harvard College Observatory, and the Dunsink Observatory, located in Dublin, Ireland. This network has played a big role in the advancement of the Armagh Observatory because more partners mean more resources. This way, Armagh's institute has become more modern and ready for a future of successful international studies of the sky.
Ascending a winding staircase, McFarland climbs to the original Troughton Equatorial telescope from the 1700s. This telescope is one of the oldest telescopes in its original location and dome. The telescope is shiny and golden with a geometrical design. The telescope's original purpose was to chart stars based upon the North Star to help guide sailors on their voyages across oceans. Another staircase into the opposite dome leads to the Grubb telescope, currently in use for training students. Today a staff of thirty works in and out of the observatory, conducting research, training graduate students, and recording unusual space events.
Other attractions include the observatory grounds, the Astropark, and the Planetarium. The grounds consist of fourteen acres that incorporate themes of astronomic proportions. Just on the south side of the observatory is the first accurate scale model of the orbits in our solar system, called the Human Orrery . This provides an activity groups may participate in that can show the way our solar system's planets move in relation to one another. Further on in the Astropark, another model of the solar system shows where planets are in relation to one another. At the top of the Hill of Infinity, there is a stone calendar that maps out the direction of the setting sun.
The observatory in Armagh isn't just important to the community of science. To have the observatory in this ancient city shows that great works can come out of small places. The beautiful architecture helps to capture the true beauty of Northern Ireland in full.
Observing the stars has been a tradition here for the past two hundred years, a tradition likely to continue. The grand masterpieces sit in the observatory's telescope domes just waiting for the next explorer to put them to use. But the only way to feel the history of this place is to experience it on your own.
Story by Christine Doughty
Photos by Caitlin Robirds
Video by Brigid Carey
Web Design by Juanita Dudhnath