What venue can boast a world-renowned focus on scientific research into our Solar System, as well as recording the daily weather, while at the same time attracting children to dress up as astronauts and launch rockets? That’s exactly what the unique combination of Armagh Observatory and Planetarium delivers!
Bringing science to life, the Planetarium provides a curricular broadening experience for school children and out of this world fun for families, with over 50,000 visitors each year. The Armagh Observatory, established over 200 years ago, is the oldest research institution in Northern Ireland and the oldest observatory in the UK still undertaking frontier research. It is home to over 20 astronomers, including postgraduate students from around the world, working in the original Grade A-listed Georgian Observatory building. Its neighbour, the Armagh Planetarium, has also reached a significant milestone of 50 years, the oldest in the UK and Ireland too.
The first Director of the recently merged Armagh Observatory and Planetarium, tasked with combining scientific research and international visitors, with education and fun, is Michael Burton, an internationally renowned astronomer who has worked at observatories on all the continents, including Antarctica. He was also the director of teaching at the School of Physics in the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
Burton is a man on a mission: “I was attracted to Armagh two years ago, by the vision of my predecessors, in particular the Observatory’s founder Archbishop Richard Robinson and the Planetarium’s creator, Eric Lindsay.”
Lindsay’s drive and commitment to provide a place where everyone could come to learn more about astronomy and space, made an impression on the Government and Councils of the time, and funding was secured despite the challenging political circumstances. Their continued support has seen the Planetarium travel through the changing times of the last 50 years and remain at the forefront of its field.
“I moved here from Australia because of the current government vision to drive the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium into its next chapter; a multi-million-pound capital investment to develop a world class planetarium excelling in education and outreach alongside a world class Research Institute that will be envied throughout the world. Armagh is truly unique, with research and education, history and heritage, all coming together as demonstrated in the Observatory and Planetarium and surrounding Astropark.”
The Planetarium boasts a number of exhibitions telling the story of space exploration and a 90-seat digital theatre where full-dome planetarium shows can be experienced. There are also workshops for young inventive minds and meeting and training rooms to host seminars, workshops and international scientific conferences on exotic topics, such as the upcoming meeting on “Hydrogen Deficient Stars” this September.
Burton continues to harness the passion we all share for space. For everything we know and everything we have yet to discover. The Planetarium welcomes over 50,000 people each year. It’s 50th anniversary was celebrated by unveiling a modern new brand and a series of events hosted by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the highly acclaimed astrophysicist from Northern Ireland who was credited with “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th Century”. Burnell grew up experiencing the Observatory and seeing the Planetarium build and as a postgraduate student in Cambridge, she discovered the first radio pulsars in space in 1967 – recognised by the award of the Nobel Prize for Physics.
From studying our 14-billion-year-old universe to maintaining the longest daily climate series in the UK and Ireland, Burton and his team are no strangers to longevity and perseverance. Hopefully the next 50 years for the Planetarium is written in the stars.