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The Observatory Science Centre
Herstmonceux
Hailsham
East Sussex
BN27 1RN
Tel: 01323 832731
Fax: 01323 832741

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Observatory Facts

The Scientific History of The Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux

The Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) was founded at Greenwich in London in 1675 by King Charles II but was moved just after the second world war in order to escape the lights and pollution of the  city. The site at Herstmonceux was chosen as the most suitable in   the UK. By the mid-fifties the observatory was fully operational.  The existing telescopes were augmented in 1967 by the giant 98-inch  Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) once housed in the silver dome to the  south of the main complex.  During its days at Herstmonceux, the RGO built up an enviable  reputation for world-class astronomical research. Each year    Herstmonceux Castle was the venue for a major conference attracting  top astronomers from all over the world.  RGO was also responsible for more routine work, involving the  careful mapping of star positions, monitoring of solar activity and   provision of a national time service. It was from the observatory's  atomic clocks at Herstmonceux that the familiar 'six-pips' were sent  by land-line to the BBC for broadcast. Today, the BBC generates the  'pips' for themselves. Another facet of the RGO's work was the  production of annual almanacs which contained the carefully computed positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars for every day of the  year. This work was carried out jointly with the US Naval  Observatory in Washington  DC.   

Unfortunately, even Herstmonceux is not a good astronomical site in   world terms and the unreliable UK weather meant that the Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) could not be utilised as much as it should have been. With the advent of cheap air travel in the sixties it became feasible for astronomers to travel to other observatories in   order to use telescopes in the best possible locations. Eventually, the decision was taken to establish a major overseas observatory in   the northern hemisphere and to move the INT there, where it could be  put to better use.  In 1979 the telescope was dismantled, removed from its dome and  completely refurbished before being installed on top of an extinct volcano on the Canary Island of La Palma in 1984. Here it forms part  of the International 'Roque de los Muchachos Observatory' run as an  overseas facility by the Royal Greenwich Observatory.   With its main telescopes located abroad, resources for maintaining  the instruments at Herstmonceux diminished and they were used less and less. Eventually, the decision was taken to move the Observatory  again, this time to a new site at Cambridge, adjacent to the  University's Institute of Astronomy. The Observatory moved to Cambridge in 1990 leaving behind the Equatorial Group of Telescopes.

When the estate passed into the hands of Queen's University of  Kingston, Ontario, Canada, Science Projects (a company with charitable status) proposed the idea of a 'hands-on' science centre,  located in the old telescope buildings. The proposal was backed by  both the local district and county councils and, as a forerunner to  the permanent centre, a travelling exhibition known as the Discovery  Dome visited the site for three months during the summer of 1994.  The Observatory Science Centre  opened in April 1995. The domes and  buildings and telescopes are being renovated and the Centre is a major venue for exhibitions, lectures and educational programmes.  Research and training facilities are being developed in conjunction  with local universities, colleges and technology-based businesses.  

The renovated telescopes are providing a unique facility for schools, colleges and astronomical societies. | The 26-Inch Thompson Telescope Satellite Tracking at Herstmonceux Throwing Some Light on the Mysteries of the Universe
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