The sky’s the limit when Dunsink Observatory comes within stargazers’ orbit

If you like the BBC’s ‘Stargazing Live’ programme, head to north Dublin for the real thing

John Flannery and Robin Moore from the Irish Astronomical Society at Dunsink Observatory. “I love 19th-century science,” says Flannery. “Sometimes I wish I lived back then.” Photograph: Alan Betson

John Flannery and Robin Moore from the Irish Astronomical Society at Dunsink Observatory. “I love 19th-century science,” says Flannery. “Sometimes I wish I lived back then.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Sat, Jan 18, 2014, 01:00

In 1977 a fire broke out at Dunsink Observatory in north Dublin and a priceless piece of moon rock, retrieved by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, was lost in the rubble that went to the local dump.

“So we have the most expensive dump in the world here at Dunsink,” says Hilary, who is with the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and jokingly describes herself as the observatory’s “factotum”. Finding the missing moon rock, she thinks, would be impossible.

Hilary, who prefers to be referred to by her first name only, has a background in “high-energy, experimental particle physics”. She has worked with Nasa and at Cern and gives me a guided tour of the refurbished 18th-century Dunsink facility.

She is accompanied by a Labrador called Ali, who doesn’t seem to know much about science at all.

Hilary shows me the “solar system room”, on the ceiling of which sits a model of the sun and all the planets (including the non-planet Pluto because, as she says, “scientific history is also important”). There is also a scientific doohickey used to help prove Einstein’s theory of relativity (“It’s called a heliostat,” Hilary says), and a picture of the observatory’s third director, Sir William Rowan Hamilton. He discovered the quaternion numbers that are “still used to get satellites into space”.


‘Dunsink time’
In a nearby corridor there are four stately clocks, a reminder of the “Dunsink time” from which the nation once set its watches. Determining time was originally one of the main functions of the observatory, “although Ireland still largely runs by its own time”, Hilary says.

On the first and third Wednesday of the month, Irish Astronomical Society (IAS) volunteers run open evenings at Dunsink. They involve a talk in the Meridian Room and an opportunity to observe the wonders of space using the Thomas Grubb-built telescope, install- ed in the South Dome in 1868.

The society members also bring their own telescopes. “People are usually amazed to realise our little devices are as powerful as something as big as that,” says Val Dunne, one of the volunteers, pointing towards the dome.

Sadly, as wind and rain beat down on the observatory, there will be nothing to observe on this night.The talk, given by IAS member John Flannery, is about the inclement weather to be found around the solar system. “I thought it would be appropriate,” he says.

About 50 people turn up to hear his learned take on the atmospheres, axial tilts and temperatures of our planetary neighbours. He also touches on the idiosyncratic theories of 19th-century astronomers. Lights perceived on Venus, said Franz Von Paula Gruithuisen, were most likely fires lit in celebration of a new planetary emperor. “I love 19th-century science,” sighs Flannery. “Sometimes I wish I lived back then.”

During his lecture he passes around a few meteorite fragments. One, he says, is billions of years old. “So just about ready for a medical card,” says a wag from the crowd.

The fragments feel cold and metallic to touch. “How do you get these?” I asked earlier.

“Ebay,” said Flannery. “You can get lots of things on Ebay these days.”

All the IAS members have their own stories about how they discovered astronomy.

Robin Moore, a retired factory worker and the society’s expert on Dunsink’s Grubb telescope, recalls his curiosity being piqued on a starlit night near Lough Derg in the 1970s.

Val Dunne, a former Aer Lingus employee, remembers his first telescope being like a “bit of wavin pipe”. “I wanted to see the moons of Jupiter and after five days of bloody awful weather I dragged it out to the back garden and I saw them and thought: ‘This is fabulous.’”

Flannery, who has a day job working with financial software, thinks some people are “just born astronomers”. He says there are many firsts – “the first time you see an eclipse, the first time you see the Northern Lights”. He pauses. “But for me it’s almost simpler. I’m still as thrilled seeing a rainbow as I was when I was kid. It’s like there are all these little surprises the sky springs on you.”


Resurgent interest
All of them are pleased with the resurgent interest in space travel. The night we meet, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is appearing on the BBC’s Stargazing Live.

During his lecture, Flannery talks about the many unmanned spaceships, the “little ambassadors”, we’ve sent out into the solar system. When I mention the Mars One company’s planned “one-way” man- ned trip to Mars, Hilary chuckles: “We’ve a few candidates we’d like to send,” she says.

But she adds that our species’ future has to involve travelling in space as well as just observing it. “The sun is halfway through its life and when it starts to get bigger and bigger we can’t be here anymore.”

She has spent a lot of time thinking about such things. She laughs. “In a way I’m already out there.”


For details of open nights at Dunsink Observatory go to irishastrosoc.org

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