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Catriona inside the observatory
Catriona inside the observatory
Mt Stromlo Observatory

Mt Stromlo Observatory

Thursday, August 29, 2002
Want to know more about the universe? Head to Australia's oldest active observatory.

Mt Stromlo Observatory is the oldest active observatory in Australia. It is 20 minutes from Parliament House in a beautiful mountain-top campus of heritage-listed buildings.

It was established in 1924 as the Commonwealth Solar Observatory and is now part of the ANU's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, recognised for its world-leading research into the origin and future of the universe.

The 1.8m telescope was erected in 1953 and was the largest in the southern hemisphere until 1974, when the 3.9m Anglo-Australian telescope arrived at Siding Spring.

The telescope used to require two operators — an observer for handling the instruments attached to the focal position and a night assistant who drove the dome and monitored the weather. A computer has now replaced the night assistant.

The telescope has taught us much of what we know today about the life cycles of stars, and still searches for exploding stars and planets beyond our solar system.

Nowadays it is joined by a 1.27m robotic telescope — both are too sophisticated for the human eye to see through. CCD cameras used instead pick up 85 times more than the eye and take time exposures into the bargain. The 1.88m telescope is able to pick up the light of a burning candle one million kilometres away!

The smaller telescope was built in Dublin in 1868 for the Melbourne Observatory, where it was housed in a hut with a roll-off roof. Unpredictable weather conditions restricted the times when it could be used, so that was unsuccessful. That observatory closed in 1925 and Mt Stromlo bought the scrap remains for £300 (or $600).

It was rebuilt in the late 1980s and these days an operator simply writes a program for it and it springs into action.

Both telescopes use reflectors or mirrors made of pyrex glass coated very thinly with aluminium. This has proven more reliable than glass, which tended to distort images. Now curved mirrors can be added ad infinitum to enlarge images.

There is so much to see at Mt Stromlo, you should leave yourself plenty of time. One exhibit leads to another and you will find your interest and understanding growing as you move around.

You can take a break at the cafe and you may even be visited by some of the local wildlife. There is also a shop selling souvenirs.


Weston, 20 minutes from the centre of Canberra


Mt Stromlo Observatory tours start at $6 for adults and $3.50 for children. They run year round.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.

More information

Mt Stromlo Observatory Visitors Centre
Off Cotters Road, Weston 2611
Ph: (02) 6125 0232
Fax: (02) 6125 8045

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