Our guide to the best observatories and astronomy resources around the UK
- Alex Johnston
- 29 September 2015
As the moon turns red and water is found on Mars, space is the place
If you're the sort of person who looks up at the night sky, sees a tiny star, reflects that it must be many light years away and then says to yourself 'Whooooa, duuuude, I'm looking into the paaaast!' then congratulations on being a stereotypical surfer-dude character from an 80s teen movie, but congratulations also for your grasp of the fascination of astronomy.
As sciences go, it's always been a bit mind-twisting – want to know what it would look like to enter a black hole? Watch this video and gibber with terror – but lately it's been in the news, what with the spectacular lunar eclipse seen at the weekend, the rave reviews for Ridley Scott's The Martian and the startling announcement from NASA that water flows on Mars in the summer months. Nobody seems to know whether this means we'll be walking on Mars sooner rather than later, but there are already various initiatives planning how we might get people to the red planet and support them there. It could well take longer than the stunningly brief eight years between JFK announcing Project Apollo in 1961 and the late Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon's surface in 1969 (no, it wasn't a hoax, shut up), but even cautious guessers think we could be there by 2030.
So, you ask, given this chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure, how can I learn more about the (possibly) infinite majesty of space? The planisphere was how many of us first learned to navigate the stars, but phone apps such as Star Walk or Night Sky are cheaper and several orders of magnitude more functional. Point your smartphone at the stars and Night Sky will tell you what you're looking at – or if it happens to be a cloudy night, what you would be looking at if you could actually see anything. Star Walk has dazzling visuals, rendering constellations in 3D, and gives you access to libraries of information.
Once you're hooked, you may want to visit an observatory. Not all are open to the public, but those that are, tend to be open a lot; astronomers love to interest people in their work. (If Scotland seems like it has more than its fair share of observatories, what can we say? We've got the terrain for them, even if we don’t always have the weather.)
Royal Observatory Greenwich
One of the oldest modern observatories in the world, it's no longer a working science centre but is maintained as a museum and education hub, with talks, activity sessions, workshops and London's only planetarium. It's also the home of the zero degree of Longitude, and Greenwich Mean Time, as calculated here, used to be the international civil time standard until it was superseded in 1972 by Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).
Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre
Jodrell Bank, on the other hand, is very much a working observatory; the huge Lovell Telescope, a radio telescope 76 metres across and weighing 1500 tonnes, is one of the icons of world astronomy, and the observatory itself is the jewel of the University of Manchester's School of Physics and Astronomy. The Discovery Centre hosts science shows, workshops and activities for kids in its three pavilions.
Northumberland's Kielder Observatory is located in the Kielder Forest, giving it some of the darkest skies in Britain. It was opened in 2008 and incorporates solar panels and a wind turbine. Its operations are oriented towards its friendly outreach programme; there's something on pretty much every evening, and you book for specific events, not general visits.
The Observatory Science Centre, Herstmonceux
When the Royal Observatory in Greenwich decided in 1947 to decamp its scientific activity from the centre of London, it chose Herstmonceux as the new location. It features no less than six telescopes, three of which (the Thompson 26-inch refractor, the Yapp 36-inch reflector and the never-used Schmidt 38-inch) are permanently open to the public, with access to the rest only available on the centre's regularly scheduled open evenings. There are also children's workshops, courses and themed evenings.
Scottish Dark Sky Observatory
You'll have noticed, by this point, that working observatories tend not to be located conveniently close to major urban centres. The SDSO is no exception, being on the edge of the Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, and so off the beaten track that they offer you a YouTube video to help you get to it. But once you're booked into an Evening Session, you can use their telescope (weather permitting) or do a spot of naked-eye observing from the deck.
Royal Observatory, Edinburgh
Edinburgh's Royal Observatory is an exception to the abovementioned tendency, although this is the second site with that title, the original one having been located in what's now the City Observatory on Calton Hill. The Royal welcomes visitors, and holds popular weekly astronomy evenings in both summer and winter, although only in winter will you observe actual stars.
Mills Observatory, Dundee
Britain's first purpose-built public observatory was built in 1935 and has a distinctive papier-mâché dome. Owned and operated since its opening by the City of Dundee Council, it offers interactive sessions, planetarium shows and hosts meetings of the Dundee Astronomical Society.
You can find more observatories here, although not all are open to the public. If you're really serious about astronomy and want to find your nearest astronomical society, the Federation of Astronomical Societies website is an invaluable resource.
In the meantime, space awaits, and there's plenty of it to go round.