The Armagh Astropark, which is located in the Observatory grounds, comprises a scale model of the solar system and the Universe together with other outdoor exhibits and interpretation panels. Its construction was completed in the two years leading up to 1994 under the supervision of Research Astronomer John Butler and the former Director Mart de Groot, supported by major grants from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Responsibility for its subsequent development and maintenance was handed to the Armagh Planetarium on 1 April 1994, but later (March 1999) returned to the Observatory. The Astropark is an integral part of the Observatory's programme of public outreach, and the Observatory is committed to developing and maximizing its educational potential. The vision is to make the Armagh Astropark the leading outdoor exhibit for the public understanding of science in Ireland.
Although the Observatory currently has no core funding specifically to develop this highly attractive facility, senior staff (notably Simon Jeffery) have gradually improved its educational potential with the assistance of external grants from the PPARC and other bodies, and by installing interpretation panels at key positions in the grounds. Simon Jeffery has also implemented a `virtual tour' of the Astropark, which may be reached from the Observatory web-site (see www.arm.ac.uk/astropark/).
In order to establish a baseline for the number of people who visit the Observatory grounds and the Armagh Astropark, a counter was installed at the entrance to the Astropark at the end of July 2000. Since then, approximately 400 visitors per week have been recorded. Many of these `visits' are undoubtedly returns by a rather smaller number of local residents, for example school children, but the high weekly number demonstrates the importance of the Armagh Astropark at least within the local community, and suggests that approximately 10,000 people per year use the facility.