Stromlo telescope to return to original glory

Stromlo telescope to return to original glory

27 November 2008

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Australia — IT took two months and a dozen large cans of WD-40 to loosen the rusted and roasted bolts on the historic Great Melbourne Telescope, which was severely damaged in the ACT bushfires that destroyed Mount Stromlo Observatory in 2003.

But the last resistant bolt was turned yesterday, enabling technicians to dismantle the 140-year-old instrument and prepare it for its return to its original home.

“We’ll have all the parts on the truck tomorrow and in Melbourne on Friday,” said science historian Richard Gillespie, who is keeping a close eye on the two-tonne telescope as it makes the long road journey to Museum Victoria.

The Great Melbourne Telescope became part of Mount Stromlo Observatory in 1944 after the Melbourne Observatory was closed.

The well-travelled instrument was built in Dublin at a 19th-century cost of pound stg. 5000. Shipped to Melbourne in 1868, it was reassembled and a year later set to work scanning the skies for blobby astronomical objects named nebulae, now known to be either galaxies or interstellar clouds of dust and gas.

In its day, the telescope was state of the art: a 122cm reflecting mirror 11.5cm thick was housed in a 9.15m tube, suspended and weighted so it could swing to point at all parts of the sky. Previously, such large telescopes had been restricted in their orientation.

Dr Gillespie says the astronomers of the time recorded their observations by hand, because astronomical photography was not developed until the 1870s.

Pictures of the moon taken by the photo-fitted Melbourne telescope became world famous.

Rapidly advancing telescope technology superseded the once-proud leviathan soon after it photographed Halley’s Comet in 1910 — its last reported scientific use in Melbourne.

After being sold to the ACT for its scrap value of pound stg. 500, the telescope underwent a series of rebuilds at Mount Stromlo. Nearly 60 per cent of the replaced components were sent to Museum Victoria for storage, along with the original specifications of the instrument.

Now, on the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope by Dutch opticians, Museum Victoria has teamed up with the Astronomical Society of Victoria to restore the instrument to its original glory.

Eventually, it will be reinstalled in its original building, which is now part of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Plans for its use are under discussion.

Dr Gillespie estimated the volunteer-driven project would cost about $1 million and take two years. “We have to look at all the parts and see what’s missing, what needs repairing. Then we’ll put it back together.”

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