His­tory writ­ten in the stars

Midland Reporter - - News - Sarah Brookes

A FORMER as­tronomer at WA’s old­est ob­ser­va­tory has writ­ten a book de­tail­ing the his­tory of the her­itage-listed site in Bick­ley.

Dr Craig Bow­ers said the Perth Ob­ser­va­tory had nu­mer­ous sci­en­tific claims to fame, in­clud­ing pho­tograph­ing Hal­ley’s Comet, co-dis­cov­er­ing the ring sys­tem around Uranus, par­tic­i­pat­ing in NASA’s In­ter­na­tional Planet Pa­trol and help­ing to dis­cover a su­per-earth ex­o­planet.

Dr Bow­ers said the ar­rival of Hal­ley’s Comet in 1986 whipped the public into a frenzy.

“It is the only bright pe­ri­odic comet that is vis­i­ble to the naked eye and there is a mys­tique to it,” he said.

“One may see it twice in a life­time, some once. We’ve seen it in his­tor­i­cal arte­facts and writ­ings go­ing back to 240BC that talk of doom and de­struc­tion, of plague. But to as­tronomers it’s an op­por­tu­nity to take what we saw 76 years ago and look at it with new de­vices.”

Dr Bow­ers said it was a serendip­i­tous mo­ment when he dis­cov­ered gas jets in Hal­ley’s Comet.

“An Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor brought an as­tropho­tog­ra­phy cam­era to the Perth Ob­ser­va­tory for the comet, which was at­tached to our tele­scope,” he said.

“The pro­gram for ob­ser­va­tion was well de­fined but one night a PhD stu­dent and I de­cided to go with a gut feel­ing of dis­cov­ery.

“We ob­served Hal­ley and saw a fea­ture that hadn’t been seen be­fore, which changed the way sci­en­tists looked at comets.”

In his Phd th­e­sis, The Sci­en­tific His­tory of the Perth Ob­ser­va­tory from 1960 to 1994, Dr Bow­ers said the ob­ser­va­tory of­fi­cially opened at Mt El­iza in the city in 1900 and later moved to Bick­ley in 1966.

“The rea­son be­hind its re­lo­ca­tion is widely con­tested,” he said.

“How­ever, my th­e­sis in­di­cates, and I stand by that, the State Gov­ern­ment had iden­ti­fied the old ob­ser­va­tory site as the most suit­able lo­ca­tion for the con­struc­tion of new gov­ern­ment build­ings. Orig­i­nally it was up to five, but ended up just one.

“We know it as Du­mas House op­po­site Kings Park.

“How­ever, as for other Aus­tralian ob­ser­va­to­ries, light pol­lu­tion was also a fac­tor, es­pe­cially for an ob­ser­va­tory that was do­ing pho­to­graphic work.”

Dr Bow­ers said while the Perth Ob­ser­va­tory in Bick­ley shut down in 2013, he be­lieved it was still ca­pa­ble of com­pet­ing on the world sci­en­tific stage.

“State fi­nances were cited as the rea­son for the ob­ser­va­tory clos­ing down, how­ever it was only cost­ing around $750,000 per an­num, which is very lit­tle for what it pro­vided,” he said.

“While some of the politi­cal sug­ges­tions when the ob­ser­va­tory was closed were that light pol­lu­tion was the rea­son, the ‘see­ing’ at the Perth Ob­ser­va­tory still re­mains the same as many ob­ser­va­to­ries around the world, which leaves the op­tion for it be­ing an out­sta­tion for an Aus­tralian or over­seas ob­ser­va­tory.”

Dr Bow­ers said the clo­sure of the ob­ser­va­tory was a blow to as­tronomers across the globe.

“It has re­moved ac­cess to ob­ser­va­to­ries around the world to a lo­ca­tion that is unique in its lon­gi­tude and lat­i­tude that pre­vi­ously gave a data sta­tion be­tween the east­ern states and the next southerly ob­ser­va­tory in South Africa,” he said.

The Perth Ob­ser­va­tory Vol­un­teer Group con­tin­ues to in­spire the WA com­mu­nity to look to the stars and pro­vides science out­reach and ed­u­ca­tion about as­tron­omy through its day and night tours. The ob­ser­va­tory will be open as part of the Bick­ley Har­vest Fes­ti­val on May 6 and 7.

Pic­ture: David Baylis www.com­mu­ni­typix.com.au d467968

Dr Craig Bow­ers has writ­ten a com­pre­hen­sive his­tory of the Perth Ob­ser­va­tory in Bick­ley.

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