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