Old telescope returns to Sidmouth Observatory

PUBLISHED: 17:30 18 June 2018

A Newtonian Reflector telescope part of the NLO collection

A Newtonian Reflector telescope part of the NLO collection

Archant

A massive old telescope has come home to Sidmouth’s own observatory after many years away.

David Strange of the Norman Lockyer Observatory examines glass plate from 1933David Strange of the Norman Lockyer Observatory examines glass plate from 1933

Astronomers now need to find the time and money to put it together. Then it could be watching the night sky for comets, supernovae and the odd stray asteroid.

“There’s nothing in the foreseeable future that’s going to hit our planet,” said David Strange, chairman of the Norman Lockyer Observatory Society.

“But on my 76th birthday in 2036, the asteroid Apophis is going to skim the earth’s atmosphere. We will see it as a bright star across the evening sky.

“If it did hit it would be a major extinction event – certainly wipe out something the size of London.”

Glass plates were used to photograph stars and cometsGlass plates were used to photograph stars and comets

Generally, things are less dramatic in the world of astronomy. The Mond Equatorial telescope was originally set up at the Norman Lockyer Observatory in 1933.

David said: “During its time it was one of the foremost telescopes. We’re literally at the very early stages, but we’ll be looking at ways and means of displaying it in due course.”

The telescope was used until the late 1950s and then abandoned until Exeter University sold the site in the 1980s.

By that stage, the domes were covered in ivy and the telescope was rescued by Dr Glyn Marsh, a scientist and keen astronomer, who set it up on the Isle of Man.

Glass plates which show images of the night sky in 1933 are part of the new collectionGlass plates which show images of the night sky in 1933 are part of the new collection

It was bequeathed by him to East Devon District Council and the observatory. His family brought it to Sidmouth in parts.

“There’s about a ton of material in various boxes. It took four or five of us to lift some of them in,” said David.

The telescope was originally paid for by Sir Robert Mond, a top chemist of his day, whose company became part of ICI.

It was made using old World War One reconnaissance cameras that had been used on Martynside planes to photograph enemy lines.

David Strange of the Norman Lockyer Observatory with lens from old telescopeDavid Strange of the Norman Lockyer Observatory with lens from old telescope

They were very good lenses for taking wide field shots and used glass photographic plates.

The plates were coated with light sensitive material and they used a camera exposure of between 10-15 minutes. The plate was then taken to a dark room to process and fix, ending up with a negative image of the night sky.

Exeter University will be scanning the plates as part of a project to put the NLO archive online.

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