Last weekend I visited the University of St Andrews for the open evening of their Observatory. This takes star gazing to a whole new level. They hold open evenings twice a year, usually in March and November, when you can visit and learn all about the telescopes, how they work and explore the domed buildings. Expert astronomers are on hand and they will give talks, demonstrations and answer your questions. Also, because 2015 is the International Year of Light though, next year the observatory is opening its doors every Wednesday night!
Just off Buchanan Gardens, in the playing fields of the historical University, the observatory contains the largest operational optical telescope in the UK, the James Gregory Telescope. This, and the other telescopes, are used for teaching and research by the students as well as specialist research groups. The Scott Laing building, which is the one you can see from the main road, houses a research team from the School of Mathematics and Statistics. The Napier building has two domes containing a 40cm diameter telescope and a 25cm diameter telescope and the James Gregory telescope is housed in a third building.
The James Gregory Telescope itself is named after the Scottish mathematician, astronomer and university academic James Gregory who invented the Gregorian telescope. The university tasked Professor Erwin Finlay-Freundlich, in the 1950’s, to build a telescope and he enlisted the help of Robert Waland, an amateur telescope maker from Dumfries, and together they completed it in 1962. After completion Robert Waland moved to Arizona where he built a 61” Kuiper Telescope which was used to produce detailed Lunar maps used by the Apollo Space Program.
During the open night all the buildings had their door open and experts kept everyone fascinated explaining the current research and letting us see the telescopes. There were posters in every room, explaining the technology behind star gazing and showing pictures of planets and star clusters that were taken from the telescopes. Unfortunately the fog had descended and the domes couldn’t be opened so we couldn’t see them in action but it didn’t hinder the experience. It was a very popular night, and very well organized. There was comet making classes for the kids as well as talks on crystals and planets. Little sparkly lights led us from building to building and you can imagine on a clear night it would be fantastic to stand on the rooftops and see the stars.
You can read more about the observatory and find out more about visiting on their website here. It won’t be open May to August as it’s too light at night but the rest of the year will be open every Wednesday from 7-9. They are also happy to arrange private tours for schools, scouts etc.
Photos of the stars and planets are taken from the Observatory website and their Facebook page. I visited here as part of the St Andrews Day Weekend celebrations which you can read about here