Star gazing at the National Botanic Garden of Wales

Colin Miles makes a plea for help in re-siting a famous telescope that belongs to Swansea’s Astronomical Society

The Swansea Astronomical Society was established in 1948, making it the oldest in the Wales and one of the oldest in the UK. It has had a somewhat chequered history, at times struggling to survive. But currently membership is strong and increasing thanks, it has to be said, to the Brian Cox effect. Over the course of the past 60 odd years the Society has had a number of homes and observatories – enforced moves which have disrupted the ability of the Society to carry out observations and, more important, the educational outreach activities involving schools and the general public.

These last few years have seen perhaps their biggest challenges, with the closure of the iconic Marina Towers observatory in Swansea Bay, plus what looks to be a forced move from their observatory at the Fairwood Swansea University grounds due to the ‘takeover’ of these by Swansea football club. The latter situation is still on-going and subject to discussion with the various parties.  But it is the closure of Marina Towers which has had the biggest effect since it has robbed the Society of a home from where they could carry out their education outreach programmes and has negated the use of a particularly valuable Telescope.

Briefly, the Marina Towers observatory was built in the 1990s, partly funded by the European Union, and housed the largest Telescope of its kind in the world. This is a 20 inch Shafer-Maksutov catadioptric telescope, built by a local GP, Dr Fred Jenkins, in his garage in the early 1990s from the best of three specially ground mirrors to a design first suggested in the 1940s. There is little chance of anything bigger being built because of the physical constraints involved in making and supporting this kind of mirror.

Until 2009 the telescope was used very successfully in the Swansea Marina Towers observatory, both for research and especially for school and public educational outreach programmes. It is a very important and extremely valuable piece of our heritage and everyone involved with the Swansea Astronomical Society are very keen to ensure that it is put to the uses for which it is intended. Similar size telescopes currently retail at about £40,000, and of course this particular design is unique, as is the circumstances in which it was created.

In 2009, due to financial problems Swansea Council decided to put up the rent on the Marina Towers observatory to such an extent that it is was no longer possible for the Society to occupy the Tower. As a result it vacated the Tower and donated the telescope to the Council. But as time went on, and with the telescope sitting in the Tower doing nothing, an approach was made to the Council to retrieve it with the intention of re-siting it elsewhere. They agreed and last year the grandson of Dr Fred Jenkins successfully craned it out and now has custody of it.

The Swansea Astronomical Association have now offered the National Botanic Garden of Wales the opportunity to use the telescope, provided that they can house it properly in an observatory, together with an associated room for display and exhibition purposes. The Garden already hosts two Star parties every year, plus a Solar Day in August, and are heavily involved with school science and technology initiatives.  So the acquisition and use of this telescope would be an excellent way of furthering these and bringing astronomy to the general public on a day by day basis.

A possible site at the Garden has been identified and there have been discussions about costs and the design of an observatory.  Norman Walker, who built and designed the original Marina Towers dome has constributed and we also have an offer of help from Charles Barclay, designer of the Kielder observatory. However, the principal problem is funding.

The Garden is open 364 days a year, with well over 100,000 visitors a year, so there is a great opportunity for publicity for any organisation prepared to assist us in this venture. And they would be doing Welsh Science and future generations of Welsh Scientists a great service. Anyone interested in helping us should contact Rob Thomas, Head of Development at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, [email protected]

Colin Miles was educated Cheltenham Grammar School, studied Chemical Engineering at Swansea University, then worked at Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, returning to Hull and then living and working in Hemel Hempstead between 1968 to 2004 before retiring to Llannon in Carmarthenshire where he is a volunteer at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

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