Last week my neighbour, who happens to be the chairman of the Western Province Astronomical Society invited me to accompany him on a visit to the Cape Town Observatory where he was helping to supervise the repairs to the dome of one of the observatories in preparation of a visit by several astronomers from around the world.
I can only remember going there many years ago and the visit came as a pleasant surprise.
The complex now serves as the headquarters for the astronomers working at SALT (Southern Africa Large Telescope) at Sutherland.
However the main aim of the Society was to repair the observatory with a view to bringing school children to visit the observatory hopefully encouraging them to take more of an interest in science and technology.
The first impression you get on entering the complex is the well laid out gardens and the many buildings dotted around the site.
The Maclear Observatory so named after the benefactor Frank Mclear of Rusthall Kent in England (the astronomer at the time being a Mr David Gill) is the main attention of our visit this time. Unfortunately the dome and the shutter to the telescope has been leaking for some time and the building has started to fall into disrepair.
The main operation we wanted to watch was the dismantling of the huge steel shutters to take them to the steelworkers for repair and repainting. The two of them are so big that they had to be cut into smaller sections for transportation. The rust will be repaired and the steelwork repainted in cold galvanising.
A the building housing the telescope, which was originally called the Victory telescope and later changed to the the Mclear telescope was built in 1896. It is hardly surprising that the dome is in need of maintenance.
What was astonishing was the material for the main dome is a type of hardboard covered in a rubberised waterproof membrane presumably added at a later date.
Once inside the dome the telescope is indeed an impressive site as is the building itself unlike other observatories where astronomer has to climb a ladder to look through the telescope in this building the floor surrounding the telescope actually rises to enable the astronomer to comfortable work at the telescope, all this in the 1890s!
The history of the site goes further, not only was it the first observatory in South Africa, but in a small building next to the Mclear Observatory.After observing a new meteor the first attempts at astronomical photography in the world were undertaken and proved that photography could indeed become an integral part of astronomy.
In the numerous buildings lots of different discoveries were to take place. In the grounds there is even a flowering plant found nowhere else. Also in the grounds set in one of the lawns there is a monument with a a brass plaque set in the side, this is the exact line of GMT ( Greenwich mean time meridian)
If you are in the area it would be a good idea to pay the observatory a visit.