Mills Observatory and the General Election

17th Jun 2024
Mills Observatory and the General Election

It’s unfair of me to pull your attention away from the general election and your focus on decisions regarding the direction that you want to see the UK as a whole to take. Likewise, if all politics is local, I should leave the goings on in Dundee alone, as that is not where I live. There is, however, an observatory in need, Mills Observatory at that, and so I’ll raise my voice nonetheless.

A horrible question: ‘What good is Mills Observatory?’

The horrible truth is that when public funds are being spent, such questions need to be asked. Mills Observatory is interesting on several levels, but the one that truly supports such spending is its utility to the community. The observatory is not just a landmark with some interesting equipment inside (though it is that as well). It is a place that has ignited dreams and launched careers. I asked June Gilchrist, Chair of the Dundee Astronomical Society, about this, and she wrote back. “There have been several past members of our Society who have gone onto careers in astronomy.”

I know or have interviewed several people who have gone into the space industry and can point to their experience growing with a telescope in the back yard as an aspect of their environment that led them in this direction. A ‘career in astronomy’ is certainly more likely if one is around instruments of the calibre that Mills Observatory has at hand. Your dreams start at a higher level.

 Now, jobs in astronomy may sound esoteric, but studying the stars and their phenomena is becoming increasingly important, especially if that star is the one many call ‘ours’, namely The Sun. The May 10-11 geomagnetic storm was generated by solar phenomena that will occur again. National security, navigation, trade and other industries rely on our understanding of those phenomena to ensure resilience in the face of such storms. Maybe someone somewhere does not connect directly with something that can be affected by these phenomena; everyone around them is.

With astronomers who cut their teeth at the Mills Observatory having gone on to Mount Palomar and other major observatories and aurora observations a long-standing tradition in the Dundee Astronomical Society, tomorrow’s astronomers could easily come from a cradle such as this.

Mills Observatory in use

The observatory contains three main telescopes, according to Wikipedia. They are:

  • a 400mm (16inch) Dobsonian reflector that came to the observatory in 2013;
  • a Victorian-era 0.25m (10 inch) Cooke refractor, with a focal length of 3.75 m. It was made in York in 1871 by noted telescope manufacturer Thomas Cooke, and came from University of St. Andrews in 1951;
  • a 0.3m (12 inch) Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope purchased in 2006.

The dome itself is one of the few papier-mâché domes left in the UK, and is opened and closed by a hand crank.

There are also a planetarium and other science related activities and displays on site. The public can use the telescopes for free (under supervision), though donations are accepted. Over 4,000 visitors made use of the observatory in 2023.

A much beloved landmark

A public outcry ended an attempt to defund Mills Observatory early in 2024. As June Gilchrist told Orbital Today, “We sincerely hope that the Observatory will be saved from closure.  Our understanding is that it has funding for its 2024/25 season but would be vulnerable after that.”

Culture and Leisure Dundee, which runs the observatory has not responded to an email from Orbital Today regarding its plans, or options that are possible for the site. However, Dundee City Council are holding public consultations through the end of June, and Dundee Culture notes that a petition on gained 1200 signatures in its first four hours.

As the general election approaches, issues local and beyond such as the funding of Mills Observatory and many other sites can become an issue to be raised. And if you have a moment, support the observatory. Tomorrow’s satellites saved might be your own.

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