Armagh Observatory & Planetarium

A Message from Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett, followed by Armagh Observatory & Planetarium's best practice article

The ability to listen and learn from one another has always been vital in parliament, in business and in most aspects of daily life. But at this particular moment in time, as national and global events continue to reiterate, it is uncommonly crucial that we forge new channels of communication and reinforce existing ones. The following article from Armagh Observatory & Planetarium is an attempt to do just that. We would welcome your thoughts on this or any other Parliamentary Review article.

Blunkett signature Rt Hon The Lord David Blunkett
Pickles signature Rt Hon The Lord Eric Pickles

Professor Michael Burton,
Armagh Observatory, seen
here from the south side
In one of the smallest cities in the UK lies a truly unique
organisation: the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium. Here
research, education and outreach come together in an institution
rich in scientific history. The observatory was the last great project
of the city’s architect, Archbishop Richard Robinson, enshrined
in a 1791 Act of Parliament for “settling and preserving a Public
Observatory and Museum in the City of Armagh, forever”. Housed
in a Grade A-listed heritage building, Armagh Observatory is now
the oldest in the UK that has continuously been used for astronomy.
Director and CEO Professor Michael Burton explains more about
the observatory’s work and discusses its community focus.
Inside the observatory, stories of discovery in science can be experienced alongside
the instrumentation used to make them. The progress of technology can be
seen through our heritage telescopes; the Troughton, for example, was installed
in 1795, making it the oldest telescope in the world that remains in its original
setting. The design featured the then-revolutionary concept of an equatorial
mounting, meaning it was able to follow the Earth’s rotation to track stars. A
century later, the Grubb telescope was used to compile a fundamental catalogue of
nebulae, one still used to this day by professional astronomers.
Our planetarium is also the longest-established in the UK, having celebrated its
50th anniversary last year. It became a beacon of the space age after its 1968
opening; it reported on the moon landings that soon followed and played a key
role in explaining the wonders of the cosmos to the public.
»Director: Professor Michael
»Armagh Observatory
established in 1790; the
planetarium followed in 1968
and the two were integrated
in 2016
»Based in Armagh, Northern
»Services: Research, education
and outreach in astronomy
and space sciences, scientific
history and heritage
»No. of employees: 30 staff, 12
PhD students
»Meteorological measurements
have been made at Armagh
Observatory since 1795
»AOP is an arm’s-length
body in the Department for
Communities of the Northern
Ireland Executive
Armagh Observatory
and Planetarium
Highlighting best practice
In the 20th century, Ernst Öpik, grandfather of former Liberal
Democrat MP Lembit Öpik, made several far-reaching discoveries in
Armagh, including the prediction of a cloud of comets orbiting the
Sun, alongside the first accurate measurement of the distance to
Andromeda, our neighbouring galaxy.
Many visitors retain strong memories
of their first visit to the planetarium as
a child and come to bring their own
children decades on.
An esteemed setting
Both of our buildings are sited within
14 acres of landscaped gardens known
as the Armagh Astropark, where scale
models of the solar system and the
universe are laid out. These convey a
sense of scale of the cosmos as one
walks along them.
Continuing through the Astropark, up
the Hill of Infinity, we have a modern
version of the stone circle – humanity’s
first attempts at comprehending the
cosmos, recreated through the placing
of the stones.
Beyond the park is the heritage landscape
of Armagh itself, including its two
cathedrals. These hark back to the era of
Christian foundation in Ireland some 15
centuries ago and are an integral cultural
element of the local area. We recognise
this at the observatory with our motto,
“TheHeavens Declare the Glory of God”,
as decreed by Archbishop Robinson.
It remains a sentiment we all can relate
to when it comes to the splendours of
the night sky and our sense of awe at
the majesty of nature.
Integrating the observatory
and planetarium
The observatory and planetarium
were brought together into a single
organisation in 2016. This integrated
what had been separate research and
outreach arms, facilitating a number of
working partnerships between the two
facilities. The immersive experience
of the planetarium allows stories
to be told of the cosmos which are
concurrently the subjects of research
carried out in the observatory.
Such a partnership has allowed us to
utilise not only the deep knowledge of
our astronomers but also the ideas and
enthusiasm of our graduate students. By
recognising these two areas and making
use of the communication skills of our
education team, we are well positioned
to develop innovative new programmes.
We use our research to inform our
outreach, allowing us to ensure that our
offerings remain fresh and relevant.
We are expanding beyond the primary
school audience that had been a prior
focus of the planetarium and look now
at instilling key scientific confidence
and research-based critical thinking
at all levels of society. We are also
strengthening our interactions with the
community, locally and regionally, to
make AOP a central part of Armagh life.
The next steps: bringing
together heritage, science
and education
We have a vision for our future that
includes aspirations for world-class
research, education and outreach set
against a rich backdrop of Armagh’s
heritage, all tied together by way of
modern leadership and governance.
We have a
vision for our
future that
aspirations for
education and
outreach set
against a rich
backdrop of
Our plan began with the full integration
of the observatory and the planetarium
and will continue on to hopefully see
us become an international centre for
science and education. Going forwards,
we will include a new state-of-the-art
planetarium as the basis for a range of
immersive experiences across both the
arts and sciences, enhanced with the use
of augmented and virtual reality exhibits.
We are also looking at establishing
a new exhibition space, set around
core themes of astronomy, space
and the environment. This will
include a high-quality conference and
workshop venue, one intended for
specialist and professional meetings
in an environment that promotes and
facilitates creativity. It will also serve as
a venue for the arts, where one might
experience music under the stars.
There will also be incubator space to
discuss new business revolving around
digital, creative and IT applications,
stimulated by interactions inspired by
the special surroundings set within an
observatory and planetarium.
All of these improvements and new
areas will be surrounded by the
Astropark, a passive recreation area
centred around a cosmos-themed park.
Rich with woodland and meadow areas,
this serves as a showcase for nature
and the environment, while remaining
connected to the town of Armagh.
Altogether, I hope these developments
can facilitate greater analysis and
exploration of the observatory’s heritage.
Through this, we could experience the
history of science since the Renaissance
period by way of the original telescopes
and instrumentation, which were in
turn pioneering pieces of equipment
during the Georgian and Victorian eras.
The planetarium would provide a new
icon for Armagh, an exemplar in design,
demonstrating energy efficiency and
sympathetic lighting. Together with
a café at its heart, it would be a focal
point for all activity, and a place of
repose and reflection for visitors!
The NI Ministerial Advisory Group
(MAG) for Architecture and the Built
Environment concluded that the project
represents an exceptional facility able
to boast of a scientific heritage of
international importance and esteem.
There are, of course, many challenges
before us in taking this forward, but
the opportunities are considerable.
It comes at a time of renaissance in
Armagh, with the development of
new facilities for education and leisure,
and investment in its heritage all
taking place. With the support of the
community, we know we can make
this vision for the Armagh Observatory
and Planetarium a reality one day.
The planetarium
became a
beacon of the
space age after
its 1968
reporting on the
moon landings
that soon
Staff and students at
the newly-merged
Armagh Observatory
and Planetarium on
the planetarium’s 50th
Hanging out on the
Moon during a school
visit to the planetarium

This article was sponsored by Armagh Observatory & Planetarium. The Parliamentary Review is wholly funded by the representatives who write for it. The publication in which this article originally appeared contained the following foreword from Rt Hon Michael Gove.

Rt Hon Michael Gove's Foreword For The Parliamentary Review

By Rt Hon Michael Gove

This year's Parliamentary Review comes at a momentous time for parliament, as we collectively determine the destiny of the United Kingdom. 

On October 31, the UK will leave the European Union. The successful implementation of this process is this government's number-one priority.

Three years after a historic referendum vote, we will deliver on the decisive mandate from the British people. Trust in our democracy depends on it. Until that final hour, we will work determinedly and diligently to negotiate a deal, one that abolishes the backstop and upholds the warm and close relationship we share with our friends, allies and neighbours in the EU. But in the event that the EU refuses to meet us at the table, we must be prepared to leave without a deal.

As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, it is my job to lead on this government's approach, should that scenario happen. Preparing for Brexit is my department's driving mission. But while I am leading this turbocharged effort, the whole of government is committed to this endeavour.

Ministers across Whitehall are working together to ensure that every possibility is considered, every plan is scrutinised and every provision is made. A daily drumbeat of meetings means that we are holding departments accountable, so that preparations are completed on time.

The chancellor has confirmed that all necessary funding will be made available. And we have mobilised thecivil service, assigning 15,000 of our most talented civil servants to manage our exit from the EU.

We will make sure that on November 1, there is as little disruption to national life as possible. Our trade relationships will continue to thrive, thanks to agreements with countries around the world worth £70 billion. Our country will remain secure, thanks to nearly 1,000 new officers posted at our borders. And the 3.2 million EU nationals now living and working among us can remain confident, with absolute certainty, of their right to remain in the UK.

Above all, our goal is to be transparent. Soon, we will launch a public information campaign so that citizens, communities and businesses are ready and reassured about what will happen in the event of “no deal”.

In my first few weeks in this role, I have travelled to ports and tarmacs, borders and bridges, all across the UK –from the seaside of Dover to the rolling green hills of County Armagh. I have heard from business owners and border officials, farmers and hauliers. They are ready to put an end to uncertainty. And they are ready to embrace the opportunities ahead.

Our departure from the EU will be a once in a lifetime chance to chart a new course for the United Kingdom. Preparing for that new course will be a herculean effort. But this country has made astounding efforts before. We can do it again.
Rt Hon Michael Gove
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster