Astronomers on the island of Ireland find common ground under the stars after building new telescope
A collaboration between observatories in Northern Ireland and the Republic is demonstrating how science transcends the politics of division.
The island’s contribution to astronomical research has had global impact but remains one of its best kept secrets at home.
Observatories at Dunsink, near Dublin, and Armagh in Northern Ireland have played an instrumental role in scientific discovery for more than 200 years.
Armagh Observatory is home to “a real piece of astronomical history”, the world’s oldest telescope still in its original position.
Michael Burton, director of the observatory, explained: “The NGC, new general catalogue, is probably the piece of work which we’re most famous for.
“This is a catalogue of the most interesting objects in the night sky, the nebulae, and it was mapped and catalogued using a telescope that still works today.”
Dunsink Observatory is known worldwide, not just for astronomy but for mathematics.
It was here that Sir Rowan William Hamilton, a former royal astronomer to Ireland, devised linear algebra.
Today, students at Dunsink are using data from the European Space Agency’s solar orbiter mission to study the sun.
Universities from both sides of the border joined forces to build a radio telescope – LOFAR – at Birr Castle, County Offaly.
Peter Gallagher, director of Dunsink Observatory, said: “This telescope is allowing us to study the explosions on the sun and how they affect our planet.
“It’s helping us to look at exoplanets, as in small or large planets orbiting around other stars.
“It’s helping us to look at the very origin of the universe, and where all of the galaxies and all of the stars and we actually came from.”
Astronomical research was the subject of the first ever cross-border agreement, governments north and south finding common ground in science.
Renewing the partnership between observatories will help the island retain its global research status.
Caitriona Mullan, strategic advisor to the project, said the partnership comes at a time “when we need hope”.
She added: “To be able to look at those jewels in the crown of scientific research, that were established in the Age of Enlightenment because of the recognition of the role of science in the development of human knowledge and the democratisation of knowledge, I think it’s very valuable to think about.”
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