The past, present and future of science in Scotland

A handsome past

A book from the Crawford collection.
(Credit: Alexis Manson/STFC)

In 1896, the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE) moved from the centre of Edinburgh to its present location on Blackford Hill, thanks to a generous donation by James Lindsay, the 26th Earl of Crawford. The Earl offered the contents of his well-equipped observatory in Aberdeenshire, and a collection of rare astronomical books that is maintained at ROE to this day, provided that the government agreed to build and maintain a suitable building to house them.

The site for the new observatory was chosen by the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Ralph Copeland. As was normal for the time, the new Observatory included residences for the Astronomer Royal and his staff, and so Copeland was able to live on site. The listed building that was formally his house has just been renamed in his honour in a ceremony attended by the current Astronomer Royal for Scotland.

The vibrant present

VLT telescopes at Paranal.
(Credit: ESO)

The Scottish climate, and local light pollution, mean that Blackford Hill is no longer suitable as a site for cutting-edge astronomical observations. The site is now home to STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre, which is recognised as a world leader in the development and construction of technologies for astronomy and space science, and the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Astronomy, a centre for teaching and research.

The UK ATC plays a leading role in a variety of world class astronomy projects, including developing software for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) and planning and design work for future Extremely Large Telescopes and their instrumentation. Its next challenge will be equally exciting – the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has just announced that UK ATC has been awarded the contract to build the Multi-Object Optical and Near-infrared Spectrograph (MOONS) for installation at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) array in Chile. The Principal Investigator, Instrument Scientist and Project Manager for the MOONS consortium are all based at UK ATC, along with the MOONS Project Office; the Project Scientist is based at Cambridge University. The instrument development is a partnership with astronomers from five other countries (France, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland and Chile) and will be delivered from the UK ATC to the VLT in 2019. The VLT is the flagship facility of European astronomy. It is located at Paranal, 2500 metres above sea level. The VLT is located in Chile because of the exceptional observing conditions there, which are unequalled anywhere else in the southern hemisphere – there’s no light pollution to interfere at Paranal! When MOONS takes its place among the third generation instruments on the VLT it will be able to tackle some of the most compelling key questions in science: How do stars and galaxies form and evolve? Do we understand the extremes of the Universe?

An exceptional future

A tiny MAPS robot.
(Credit: Allan Muir/STFC)

ESO is already working on ‘the next big thing’ – the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). The UK ATC is working with scientists from several UK Universities and international partners in technology development work and to design the cutting edge new instruments the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will need. As a potential new technology for large multi-object spectrometers the UK ATC has designed a Micro Autonomous Positioning System (MAPS) that uses tiny robots to position mirrors to select light from the most interesting parts of the telescope’s field of view.

A deeper understanding of the Universe isn’t the only benefit to come from our investment in astronomy. UK companies are well-placed to take advantage of the engineering challenges that building large telescopes presents, and have won more than £9 million in contracts for the E-ELT project so far. This figure could rise ten-fold by the expected completion date in 2023.

Building on these industrial collaborations, in 2016 the new Higgs Centre for Innovation will open at ROE. Named after Edinburgh-based scientist Professor Peter Higgs, who shared the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics for his theory proposing the existence of the Higgs boson, the centre will focus on business incubation and start-up support. Working in partnership with the University of Edinburgh, the centre will house up to 12 small businesses, giving them access to the UK ATC’s academic instrumentation and big data capabilities and expertise.

The UK is a world leader in astronomy and particle physics research, and the technology developed for astronomy also finds uses elsewhere (e.g. in medical science). We know that STFC research delivers real benefits to the UK and its people, and helps attracts young people into STEM subjects. For more information, please see our latest impact brochure.

See for yourself!

As part of the Edinburgh Doors Open Weekend, organised by the Cockburn Society, the ROE will be open to the public this weekend (27th and 28th September). Visitors have the opportunity to see the historically-noteworthy architecture of the Observatory and learn about modern astronomy and the work of the UK ATC and the Institute for Astronomy. Events are themed around the Rosetta mission that has reached comet 67P and is poised to attempt the first landing on a comet, and the Gaia mission to produce the most complete and accurate catalogue of the galaxy. Admission is free and booking is not required. You can find more information on the ROE Visitor Centre website.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000