All-Ireland Astronomy Trail Launched

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During the past number of months the Armagh Observatory has been involved in a project led by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) to establish a special-interest cross-border astronomy 'tourism' trail, covering observatories, visitor centres and astronomical research institutes across the whole island of Ireland. This heritage and cultural tourism initiative aims to link the most interesting astronomy centres on the island of Ireland on a trail that can be followed, in whole or in part, by individuals, families or groups on organized tours. Minister Joan Burton TD launched the "Irish Astronomy Trail" at an event in Dunsink Observatory, Dublin, on Friday 23rd November.

Ireland has a very large number of extant megalithic monuments dating back to the Bronze Age and earlier, and is home to the oldest known precisely astronomically aligned structure in the world, the famous passage tomb at Newgrange, dating back more than 5,000 years. It also has a rich heritage of late eighteenth and nineteenth-century astronomical drawings, archives and historic scientific instruments in the island’s two 'sister' observatories, namely Dunsink, founded in 1783, and the Armagh Observatory, founded by Archbishop Richard Robinson in 1789. More than 45,000 people visit the Armagh Observatory and its associated Grounds and Astropark every year.

The heritage of astronomy in Ireland encompasses very nearly the complete history of modern astronomy and its recent explosive developments, and includes giants of Victorian scientific engineering such as the 'Leviathan of Parsonstown' in Birr Castle Demesne, Co. Offaly; the historic 1834 15-inch Grubb reflector in Armagh; and the later (1885) 10-inch refractor erected at Armagh in memory of the third director, Thomas Romney Robinson. There is also the historic Crawford Observatory, which contains another unique Grubb refracting telescope that can be visited in the precincts of University College Cork.

The Birr Castle telescope, a huge instrument nearly 60 feet long containing a mirror 6 feet across and supported between two massive stone walls, was for 72 years from its first light in 1845 the largest telescope in the world. It became a honey-pot for professional astronomers, some of whom travelled from distant parts of Europe to see what new astronomical objects could be seen through its powerful optics, unmatched at that time by any other telescope on Earth. The 72-inch reflector at Birr is perhaps most famous for the discovery of spiral nebulae, first described in April 1845 by the third Earl of Rosse soon after the telescope’s 'first light' in February that year. These spiral nebulae, which are now called Spiral Galaxies, have now been recognized as distinct stellar systems in their own right, each hundreds of thousands of light years across and many millions of light years away from our own Milky Way galaxy. Each of these galaxies typically contains hundreds of billions of stars, many of which it is thought are surrounded by planetary systems as complex as our own solar system.

The Irish Astronomy Trail extends from Dublin to Cork and Armagh and places in between. In Cork City there is a vibrant education and public outreach programme associated with the Cork Institute of Technology’s Blackrock Castle Observatory, while the Centre for Astronomy, NUI Galway, provides an equally rich annual programme of astronomy education, public outreach and public and undergraduate observing nights in its new observatory, the Imbusch Observatory in Galway. Complementing the international reach of the Armagh Observatory and its programme of Science in the Community is the world-famous Armagh Planetarium, the earliest and largest Planetarium on the island of Ireland, providing a regularly refreshed programme of astronomy exhibits and digital star shows seen by more than 35,000 visitors per year.

Launching the Irish Astronomy Trail, Minister Joan Burton said: "The Irish Astronomy Trail links all the main astronomical sites on the island of Ireland. It also forms part of a broader European initiative to develop a European 'Route of Observatories'. It will for the first time provide an integrated platform to explore Ireland’s rich astronomical heritage. The online trail will link every location around Ireland involved with astronomy including heritage sites, centres of outreach and research, and upcoming astronomy events through a convenient and easy to navigate web portal.  The portal will provide a resource both for cultural tourists who want to explore Ireland’s rich astronomical heritage and for Irish residents with an interest in astronomy. I wish all involved with the project every success."

The Irish Astronomy Trail was proposed by Professor Luke Drury, Director of the School of Cosmic Physics in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, inspired by the French "Route des Observatoires", and it is intended that it will be integrated into other European astronomical heritage and outreach projects. Speaking at the launch of the Irish Astronomy Trail, Professor Luke Drury said: "Astronomy is the oldest of the natural sciences and perhaps the one with the greatest popular appeal. Everyone is interested in the origin of the universe, the nature of the stars, and in exploring the wonders of the sky. The Trail will not only allow people to explore this aspect of our cultural heritage, but also allow them to engage with current on-going research. An increased public appreciation of science is vital and we hope that the Trail will also lead to this."

The Irish Astronomy Trail also aligns closely with the Armagh Observatory's mission to advance the knowledge and understanding of astronomy through the execution and dissemination of astronomical research nationally and internationally in order to enrich the economic and social life of the community. It contributes to DCAL and Northern Ireland Executive goals associated with the Programme for Government, for example those to develop new audiences for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); to promote creativity and lifelong learning; to develop and deliver quality cultural products and services; and to grow the economy in partnership with others by encouraging local tourism and increased visitor numbers in both the City of Armagh and across Northern Ireland. The Irish Astronomy Trail can be accessed online at www.astronomytrail.ie.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: John McFarland at the Armagh Observatory, College Hill, Armagh, BT61 9DG. Tel.: 028-3752-2928; jmfat signarm.ac.uk.

Notes for Editors:

1. The Armagh Observatory (see http://star.arm.ac.uk/) is a modern astronomical research institute with a rich heritage. Founded in 1789 by Archbishop Richard Robinson, the Observatory is one of the UK and Ireland's leading astronomical research establishments. Around 30 astronomers are actively studying Stellar Astrophysics, the Sun, Solar System astronomy, and the Earth's climate. The Observatory is funded by major grants from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for Northern Ireland and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. Our aim is to advance the knowledge and understanding of astronomy and related sciences through the execution, promotion and dissemination of astronomical research nationally and internationally in order to enrich the intellectual, economic, social and cultural life of the community.

2. The Irish Astronomy Trail Participating Sites are:
Armagh Observatory
Armagh Planetarium
Birr Castle
Blackrock Castle Observatory
Crawford Observatory
Dunsink Observatory
Imbusch Observatory
Newgrange

3. The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (see http://www.dias.ie/): DIAS was established by Eamon de Valera in 1940 on the model of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. It is the second oldest such institute in the world and currently comprises three schools: the School of Theoretical Physics, the School of Celtic Studies, and the School of Cosmic Physics (to which the historic observatory, Dunsink, is attached). Among the many scholars and scientists who have worked in the Institute, perhaps the most famous is the Nobel-laureate Erwin Schroedinger who was the first director of the School of Theoretical Physics. Dublin City of Science 2012 (http://www.dublinscience2012.ie/). Over the course of 2012, Dublin has hosted a year-long celebration of science with a programme of over 150 science-related projects that cross the worlds of art and culture to explain science and art to the general public, whilst providing new reasons and opportunities for the general public to come to Dublin. A major event was the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012 which took place in the Convention Centre, Dublin, bringing some of the world’s leading scientists to Dublin from 11th to 15th July 2012. The Dublin City of Science 2012 programme has been enabled through the support of many government and private organizations, including the Department of Jobs Enterprise and Innovation; the European Commission; IBM; Intel; Janssen; Science Foundation Ireland, Forfas; the Robert Bosch Stiftung; Eirgrid; the Marine Institute; Dublin City Council; RTÉ; and The Irish Times.

Last Revised: 2012 November 28th