Blackrock Castle Observatory is the perfect space

It was an out-of-the-blue phone call from an American that led to a space observatory being built in Cork City. Nine years on, and the project is being applauded worldwide for its work with children, writes John Tynan

It was a Friday evening in 2002. Niall Smith was preparing to leave the office for the weekend when the phone rang.

The man at the end of line introduced himself. He was Texan, called Gary O’Keeffe and he wanted to know where the observatory was in Cork.

Niall Smith, an astrophysicist at CIT, had to tell him that the city didn’t have one. O’Keeffe said it was a pity and that one should be developed. Smith had to agree with him.

“So myself and Alan Giltinan started looking for sites with Gary and we spent the best part of two years in farmers’ fields, different locations, looking at dark sites, essentially. But the cost of buying land prohibited our plans, plus we had planning and rezoning issues”.

Two years later, Cork City Council bought the 16th-century Blackrock Castle from an engineering company. Its tower, three miles from the city centre, was built by the citizens of Cork in 1582 to protect the harbour from pirates.

Smith sent off a two-liner letter to the then city manager Joe Gavin suggesting that it would be a great site for an observatory. They were shocked when Gavin came back to them quickly, said he really liked the idea and asked for a two-pager expanding on their plans.

Co-founders of the Blackrock Castle Observatory , Alan Giltinan, systems manager, Blackrock Castle Observatory, and Dr Niall Smith, head of research CIT. Picture: Gavin Browne

“Shortly afterwards, we found out it had been given the green light by the council. It was like all our Christmases had come together. Following much renovation, we opened in 2007.”

“When Blackrock Castle was built, people did not even understand what stars were. In fact, Blackrock Castle pre-dates the invention of the telescope,” says Smith, sitting in his office surrounded by research papers. “A phrase we use about our location is 21st-century technology in a 16th-century castle”.

Blackrock is a working observatory, generating new knowledge. It’s a science and discovery centre with PhD students actively conducting research.

“Much of the research we do has its basis in conversations we had with Aidan O’Connor, who, like Gary Keeffe, is now deceased. Aidan was a lecturer and a brilliant researcher and intimately involved with discussions about BCO at the outset. He also did a lot of the original data analysis.”

A primary function of the observatory is educating children, under the tutelage of the effervescent ‘performance astronomer’ Frances McCarthy, who has a degree in astronomy and physics from the University of Toronto and experience in interactive museums around the world.

“We’ve been running a project called TARA, where we allow children to remotely operate a small telescope on the roof of a school in California and the key thing is the eight-hour time difference as it allows Irish children during the day to see the US skies at night.

“We are now installing a telescope in Pune, India. They are five-and-a-half hours ahead, which means we can access it in the afternoon and also later for after-school clubs. The telescope in California also gives opportunities for Irish children to interact with American children. This has been moderately successful, but we are breaking new ground.

“We also have an agreement to get access to a bigger telescope in California at the world-famous Lick Observatory, which is linked with University of California, Berkeley. We are looking to raise €20,000 to allow 50 nights’ access to the telescope. This telescope has more than six times the light-collecting ability of the telescope at Blackrock Castle, but it is also in a dark site. The quality of the images for the children will be amazing. You could track an asteroid, for example, with this telescope, or look at distant quasars. These are among the most distant objects in the universe. The children will be able to search for supernova, stars that are dying or forming, there’s a universe of stuff you can see with it.

“What’s interesting is that nobody outside ourselves will have access to the Lick telescope for this kind of project. Basically, they liked our project TARA... bringing astronomy into schools.” Smith says the figures speak for themselves when it came to the observatory’s popularity.

Children at the observatory. Picture: Gavin Browne

“We will have over 30,000 children doing workshops, either in the castle or through our outreach programme this year. We also have another 30,000 drop-in visitors. On top of that, we have another 50,000 who visit the castle site and while most would be going to the popular Castle restaurant, they still see our exhibits in the courtyard, so they are being touched and made aware of science, even if it’s only marginally.

A number of times during the year, Cork Astronomy Club bring their telescopes to the castle for observing sessions that are open to the public.

Prepare to be spaced out: On a clear night, you would see about two-thirds of the way across the universe with the Blackrock Castle telescope. That’s about 30bn light years.

“We don’t even have the biggest telescope in Cork — an amateur astronomer has one twice the size — but the work we are doing is important in developing techniques in observing. Size doesn’t always count. We can take the techniques we are developing and apply them elsewhere on bigger telescopes.” The future looks good for the observatory, which is managed on behalf of CIT by a wholly-owned subsidiary, Cosmos Education, says Smith.

BCO had its most successful year last year, but, importantly, secured two generous grants in recognition of its work to date.

“We became a Science Foundation Ireland strategic partner and were allocated €200,000 over two years. It will allow us to develop further our workshops. There is also a new national STEM ( science, technology, engineering and maths) week called Space Week, which runs from October 8-15, which we are co-ordinating on a national level. The national element of Space Week is important, as it allows us to strengthen our influence outside the confines of Cork.

The space industry is growing in Ireland, there are 50 companies on the Enterprise Ireland list connected with space, working largely with the European space industry.

Fáilte Ireland also provided a €160,000 grant to the castle.

“We will use this to cover the castle’s long maritime history but with science and technology threaded throughout the story. We are all about STEM, so it’s important for us. Our remit is to engage and enthuse. That can be challenging but incredibly rewarding when you get it right.”

Niall Smith is starting a new monthly ‘Sky Matters’ column in the Irish Examiner from Monday. He wants to encourage people to look up at the sky with their naked eye to observe what’s happening overhead.

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