Archive History Section: The History of the University Observatory
In 1979, the University decided to set up a new BSc course named Physics with Astrophysics, as a joint venture between the Department of Physics and the then separate, Space Research Department. A plan to build an undergraduate Observatory was suggested by Dr Ken Elliott and he presented a proposal to the Space Research Group Committee. The document, which was produced before the advent of word processors was hand written and can be seen in full here
The proposal was successful, and Dr Chris Eyles and Dr Ken Elliott then visited the telescope manufacturers, (Astronomical Equipment Ltd) to discuss various possible telescope configurations, and quotation of £19,400 for the telescope, a quote was received in October 1980.
A bid was then made to the University for a total of £30,000 to cover the cost of the telescope, drive electronics and dome. This too was successful late in December 1980. Between Christmas and New Year (29th December), Dr Ken Elliott then placed the order for the telescope. In January 1981, the financial cuts in Universities were announced and we were told not to place any new large orders! By that time, by good luck, the order for the telescope had been placed and the plans to build the observatory couldn’t be stopped.
Sky brightness measurements were made on the Poynting Physics building roof and at the University playing fields at Wast Hills. The sky at Wast Hill was ~100 times darker than on campus, and this was before the floodlighting of the campus hockey pitches. Naturally we opted to build the observatory at the Wast Hills site. A further bid to the University for £22,000 to construct the observatory building was made, and this too was successful. During 1981, plans for the Observatory were drawn up, planning permission sought and builders selected.
As the telescope was to be of an equatorial English mount, with the polar axis aligned North-South, the building also had to be aligned exactly N-S. On December 18th 1981, a North-South line was staked out in the snow, using a theodolite, to observe a meridian transit of the Sun. The first foundation trenches were dug in Jan 1982. Building continued, and the Ash Dome was built up.
Unfortunately after the building was finished and the concrete piers were cast it was found that the North-South alignment wasn’t exactly correct. Fortunately the telescope mount had enough adjustment to align it properly.
Meanwhile the telescope was delivered to the University and it was built up and tested in one of the huts outside the Physics Poynting building.During this period the computer servo control system, designed by Dr Chris Eyles was successfully tested. The computer used at this stage was a DEC PDP 11 minicomputer with 24kilobytes of memory! The telescope was then transported from the campus and was lowered into position on 28th September 1982 and re-assembled while hanging on the crane. The construction took 6 hours much of it in a heavy rain storm.
The mirror and cell was installed on November 3rd 1982 and first light was on December 8th 1982, No computer control was available and two students, Richard Saxton and Geoff Mellor turned the RA flywheel by hand to keep the telescope tracking. Details of the first few pages of the Observatory Log book can be seen here. On 10th January 1983, the telescope first slewed and tracked under computer control