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Now That the Smog Has Lifted, Astronomy Returns to London’s Royal Observatory

A new telescope that filters out light pollution and interference will watch the stars from the site constructed in 1675

(Royal Museums Greenwich)
smithsonian.com

For 300 years, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich Park in London was the center of the scientific world, in some cases literally—the Prime Meridian, the line of 0 degrees longitude dividing the eastern and western hemispheres, runs through the Observatory. But in 1957, due to London’s terrible smog problem, the Observatory and its telescope relocated to a castle in Sussex, leaving the original building behind as a museum and education center. But now, reports Sofie Werthan at Slate, astronomy has returned to the venerable Observatory after a sixty-year pause.

Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph reports that the Observatory recently refurbished the Altazimuth Pavilion and installed a new telescope called the Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT), named in honor of the first woman to work at the site. Annie Maunder first served as one of several “lady computers,” performing calculations and other data analysis for the Astronomer Royal. In 1895, she married astronomer Edward Walter Maunder and was forced to give up her calculator position. However, that did not stop her passion for astronomy. She and her husband meticulously documented sunspot activity and were able to correlate it to climate events on Earth. She even invented a new camera for taking solar photos, documenting the first solar flares ever recorded.

The AMAT isn’t likely to be as groundbreaking as its namesake, though it is a sophisticated telescope. Most cutting-edge telescopes these days are multi-million dollar behemoths placed on the tops of remote mountains, not in busy cities. But astronomer Brendan Owens tells Knapton that despite the light pollution from the London sprawl, the view from AMAT will be pretty good. “Urban astronomy has come a long way, and we have to thank amateur astronomers for a lot of the developments that have allowed us to do this,” he says. “We now have filters which completely block out the wavelengths of light from things like street lamps and instead just focus on the hydrogen, oxygen and sulphur dioxide that are coming from stars and planets. As well as highly magnified images of the sun and moon, we have a cooled digital camera to take very wide views of the sky so we can see nebulae and galaxies.”

Ian Sample at The Guardian reports that the observations will support astronomy research and images from the telescope will be livestreamed to schools and the planetarium next door. But that will take volunteers who will manage the scope and, most importantly, work the pulleys and ropes required to rotate the observatory’s dome. Eventually, the dome will be automated to protect volunteers from rope burns.

The return of astronomy to the Observatory is a symbolic continuation of the U.K.’s scientific legacy. In 1675, on the orders of King Charles II, builders began converting the ruins of Greenwich Castle, located in Greenwich Royal Park, into an observatory under the advisement of a commission of notable scientists, including Sir Christopher Wren, the astronomer and noted architect. The Observatory was the first state-funded science institution in the United Kingdom.

The idea was that by meticulously observing and mapping the stars, the British could improve their ability to navigate at sea. They accomplished that mission, and the Observatory also worked to develop accurate clocks, a major component in navigation and calculating longitude, which helped sailors figure out their global position.

According to the Observatory, as early as the 1800s as London’s population grew and the air filled with coal smoke and soot, it was obvious the telescopes could not remain in the city. A planned move in the first half of the 20th century was delayed by World War II, but in 1957, the Observatory officially moved its telescopes to Herstmonceaux Castle in Sussex and the Greenwich Observatory became a museum.

“The observatory really started to wind down in 1948 because Greenwich had been expanding, and Greenwich Power Station was belching out smoke so the telescopes were becoming useless,” Curator of the Royal Observatory Greenwich, Louise Devoy, tells Knapton. “They also used to do magnetic and meteorological readings from here, but the railways and iron-framed buildings interfered with the signals and the vibrations from the trains made accuracy impossible. With the new telescope we can use filters and software to process it all out.”

Sample reports that the refurbished Altazimuth Pavilion will reopen to the public in August and include displays on the ground floor that tell about Annie and Walter Maunder, though the AMAT scope will only be publicly accessible during special events.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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