Recent reports in the media about a new radio telescope in the grounds Birr Castle has firmly shone a spotlight on the astronomical heritage of Ireland. From 1845 until 1914 the largest telescope in the world stood in the grounds of Birr Castle. It was the brainchild of the 3rd Earl of Rosse and through it he made many wonderful discoveries, he named the Crab nebula and was the first to document the structure of spiral galaxies, although at the time, they didn’t truly understand their nature.
He was also an amateur astronomer in the sense that he had a telescope in his backyard and used it to explore the wonders of the universe. Astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs can still make important scientific discoveries. The universe is a vast place and there are only so many professional telescopes turned on it. It is still exciting when I’m observing the sky and I stumble across a faint fuzzy patch that I don’t recognise and feel the thrill of discovery rise up. One always hopes it is an undiscovered comet, but deep down I know it isn’t, and when I do a bit of digging I find it is a faint nebula or galaxy.
Nowadays sophisticated amateur astronomers in Ireland have computer guided telescopes hooked up to ccd cameras and make remarkable discoveries from their backyards. They discover and track asteroids, monitor the planets for changes and discover supernovae (when a star spectacularly blows itself to bits). A handful of supernovae have been discovered from backyard observatories in Ireland in the past decade. Imagine, being the first human to observe another star destroying itself and then popping into the house for a cup of tea!!!