Accessing the sky – building Sydney Observatory’s new dome – post 8

This is the eighth post in a series which documents the development and construction of a new domed building for Sydney Observatory which is especially designed for use by people with disabilities and their carers. Officially called the ‘East Dome’ this building was opened today, 27 January 2015, by the Hon. John Ajaka, Minister for Disability and Ageing.  Despite drenching rain the opening event was well attended by distinguished guests.

Guests at the opening event
Guests at the opening event. MAASDirector, Rose Hiscock in foreground.  Photo T.Stevenson

This project was made possible due to financial support from the NSW Department of Ageing Disability and Home Care , the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) capital works program and  NSW Public Works contributed funding towards the restoration of the heritage dome and the project was managed by Adam Adair of Pure Projects and builders were Zadro Constructions. The building was designed by NSW Government Architects Angus Donald, Vivian Sioutas and Terry King.  The dome houses a new and accessible DFM telescope with the revolutionary Articulated Relay Eyepiece. It also showcases the 1890 Melbourne Astrographic telescope designed and built by Howard Grubb. The dome was originally built by Morts Dock engineering under instruction from NSW Government Architect Harley Wood and was operational from 1952.

The project nears completion
The project nears completion. Photo T.Stevenson

In post 1 and post 2 of this series I provided information about why Sydney Observatory is building a new dome, where the dome came from and how the building program is progressing.

Astrograph and Toner Stevenson
4 November 2014, Toner Stevenson with the restored heritage dome prior to installation. Photo C. Rowe.

In post 3 I explained Andrew James’s role advising on accessibility and his deep engagement with the research outcomes from the Astrographic Catalogue and the instruments which were used for that project. In post 4 I confirmed the name ‘East Dome’  and that the concrete pour had been successful and bricks and block-work walls were progressing. In post 5 I described the excitement with the arrival of the historic Astrographic telescope mount. In post I described the exciting day, November 6, when the historic dome arrived and was fitted on top of the new building. A ‘dome topping’ ceremony was held with Deputy Premier Troy Grant and Minister John Ajaka. In post 7 the new telescope from DFM Engineering in Boulder Colorado arrived, was installed and commissioned.

Hon. John Ajaka being interviewed by ABCNews
Hon. John Ajaka being interviewed by ABCNews24. Photo T. Stevenson

In the first weeks of the new year there were still many aspects of the new building, and its equipment to sort out. Rotating the dome with the telescope required specialist programming skills because it was old technology (the dome and its motor) meets the new technology of the telescope. Jeff Smith of NSW Public Works and Zadro Construction worked with DFM Engineering to solve this problem. Another exciting event was the delivery of the telescope tubes and the completion of assembly by the MAAS Conservators Carey Ward and Tim Morris and a small band of dedicated restoration volunteers. This took two full days and , with the telescope tubes so tightly fitting the space, there were a few close calls near the glass and ceiling. With the programmable lighting it looks spectacular at night. But even more so once the exhibition graphics were installed.

Carey Ward, MAAS Conservator, installs the Melbourne Astrograph.
Carey Ward, MAAS Conservator, installs the Melbourne Astrograph.
Adjusting the plate holder in the astrograph
Adjusting the plate holder in the astrograph. Photo T. Stevenson

The amazing star field images featured in the exhibition are courtesy of David Malin Awards Winner, Phil Hart. The section of the Milky Way located behind the Astrographic Telescope illustrates the section of sky which Sydney Observatory photographed for the Astrographic Catalogue. A spectacular image of the Great Orion Nebula is at the entry point. This image was chosen because it is the subject of one of the earliest photographs taken by Henry Chamberlain Russell in preparation for the Astrographic Catalogue. The Great Orion Nebula is an intriguing and much researched and imaged object and one of the most fascinating to view through a telescope. The exhibition also includes a measuring machine manufactured by Troughton and Sims in Britain called ‘Sydney A’. There is also film footage of the dome and telescope being used by Harley Wood in the 1960s.

The opening event, held 27 January , was simple but meaningful with speeches by MAAS Director, Rose Hiscock, President of the Board of Trustees, Professor John Shine, and the Hon, John Ajaka Minister for Disability and Ageing. I made concluding remarks about the importance of the heritage of astronomy in Australia and how this is a shared concern amongst Museums, Universities, research organisations and the community.

At the opening amateur astronomer Andrew James with Professor John Shine
At the opening amateur astronomer Andrew James with Professor John Shine. Photo T.Stevenson

The guests included many people who had worked on the project and those who had been encouraging and supportive: MAAS Trustees Jim Longley and Bob Cameron;  globally renowned astronomers Dr David Malin and Professor Fred Watson; University of Sydney Museum Studies Pro Dean Jennifer Barrett and astronomy Professors Anne Green and Elaine Sadler; ESA engineer Warrick Holmes; UNSW Professor Michael Burton and  UWS Assoc. Professor Miroslav Filipovic. There were people who had been involved at the very beginning and the architects, designers, collection and exhibitions staff who had seen it through to completion. Many amateur astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts joined us and all attendees were offered a tour of the new facility by the Sydney Observatory project team curator Andrew Jacob and education program manager Geoff Wyatt.

One of the important outcomes from this project is that research I have produced for my doctoral Museum Studies thesis about the Astrographic Catalogue, and the women who worked on it in Australia, provided the foundation to establish the  sociological significance of the project to Sydney Observatory and a much deeper understanding of the women’s work and its extent than had previously existed. It was therefore fitting that star measurer and computer Winsome Bellamy , and Ros Madden, the daughter of Harley Wood, were able to attend this event as well as the amateur astronomers who were the last people to use the Astrographic Catalogue to photograph Halley’s comet in February 1986, just before it was transferred to Macquarie University.

I hope you come to see the East Dome and book into a tour to use the telescope. You can wander through the exhibition for free during the day 10am to 5pm, and the telescope will be available as part of the night and day tours from March 2015.

Testing the lighting at night
Testing the lighting at night. Photo T.Stevenson


Return to Accessing the Sky – Post 1


T. Stevenson (2014). Making Visible the First Women in Astronomy in Australia: The Measurers and Computers Employed for the Astrographic Catalogue . Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, 31, e018 doi:10.1017/pasa.2014.12.

T. Stevenson (2013). Making Visible the first Women in Astronomy in Australia, slide presentation about women in astronomy: http://astronomy.swin.edu.au/ASA-WIA/wia2013/TonerStevenson_WiA2013.pdf

T. Stevenson (2013) presentation to the Women in Astronomy workshop, 2013: http://www.tubechop.com/watch/1477531

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