Astronomy enthusiasts, tourists and school groups can enjoy the sight of the stars from the newly established observation platform at the Naval Hill Planetarium. Also new to the facility is the recently launched exhibit of the historic Lamont-Hussey telescope and an entrance garden to the planetarium.
Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS), Prof Francis Petersen, recently launched the telescope exhibit together with the completed observation platform and the entrance garden on the grounds of the planetarium.
“South Africa hosts some of the major telescopes on Earth and is at the forefront of astronomical research. Today we salute the scientists who have advanced human knowledge and we are proud to be a part of that. We are building on their legacy,” Prof Petersen said.
The planetarium, established in the converted Lamont-Hussey Observatory, is a powerful tool for science communication and education and thousands of people attend presentations here each year.
During the 1920s, the Lamont-Hussey telescope found its way ‑ through the University of Michigan ‑ to what is now known as the digital Planetarium on Naval Hill. For the launch of the exhibit, the UFS received a letter from Prof Edwin Bergin, Professor and Chair of Astronomy at the University of Michigan. He said: “We are impressed that this facility is still in active use and has been significantly improved during the last years for new purposes of public education and outreach. In these new roles it will reach a much broader audience than it did when it was a research observatory. The University of Michigan is honoured that our name is still attached in some small way.”
The 27-inch Lamont Refractor was one of the largest refracting telescopes in the southern hemisphere and did extensive research in the field of double stars. It was the telescope that was used in what is now the planetarium.
The telescope was named after Prof WJ Hussey, a great astronomer from the University of Michigan and his friend, RP Lamont, a businessman who provided the funds for the construction of an observatory in the southern hemisphere.
Plans for the observatory and a 24-inch refractor began as early as 1910. World War I intervened, and construction of the Observatory commenced in 1927. In 1928 the telescope and dome were installed and research began on 11 May of that year.
Prof RA Rossiter (continuing Hussey’s work after he passed away) started with an eight-year research project in the mapping of double stars. Over 5 000 double stars were discovered by 1937 which grew to 25 000 measurements of double stars in 1947.
In 1971 all observations ended and in 1974 the observatory closed. Four years later the telescope’s optics were removed and sent back to Michigan, where they are in safe-keeping to this day. In 1976 the University of Michigan gave the building to the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State and the observatory was used as one of South Africa’s most unique theatres for some time.
Years ago the telescope was restored by enthusiasts who found the tube in the veld behind the lion’s cage at the zoo. They saved most of the components (some missing components were manufactured) and with funding they managed to rebuild most of the telescope. Although dramatic and beautiful, it is not a working telescope.
“This project has brought together the UFS, government as well as the private sector. It would not be possible without the continued collaboration and support of all the partners,” said Prof Petersen.
Source University of the Free State