News / Education / Community / Social / 17th August 2023
Memories on the mountain
The 50th anniversary of the UK Schmidt Telescope brings back many happy memories for Professor Fred Watson, both of the telescope and of the Coonabarabran community.
In 1982, Prof. Watson began a three-year secondment to Coonabarabran from the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, which was then the operator of the UK Schmidt.
Although no longer working at Siding Spring, Prof. Watson has made Australia his home and now works as the Australian Government’s ‘Astronomer-at-Large’, a role that takes him across the country.
“This job is about giving expert advice to our government and international bodies like the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space at their meetings in Vienna,” Prof Watson said.
“It also lets me continue with science outreach activities everywhere from school classrooms to the ABC.
“Both aspects are close to my heart, and hopefully contribute to the future and wellbeing of Australian astronomy.”
Prof. Watson said there were many highlights during his time at Siding Spring Observatory, some of these including the observatory’s survival of the 2013 Wambelong bushfire, the designation of the Warrumbungle National Park as Australia’s first-ever ‘Dark Sky Park’, and many inspiring conversations with Coonabarabran’s Gamilaraay Elders.
“It’s hard to overestimate how much I gained and learned from that time,” Prof. Watson said.
He said the ups and downs of the UK Schmidt also stick in his memory, with some of the ‘ups’ including working with his capable and enthusiastic colleagues at Siding Spring to achieve some world-firsts for the telescope.
“We pioneered the use of fibre optics in astronomy,revolutionising the speed at which we could survey stars and galaxies in the Universe – and then went on to exploit that newtechnology for the benefit of all astronomers.”
As for the ‘downs’, Prof. Watson said these were mostly accidental, but he found moments like these were also imprinted in his memory.
“Like the memorable night when the telescope’s 1.2 metre diameter lens cap was accidentally left on all night, and another when dozens of delicate fibre optics were chopped in half inside the telescope...hours of precious observing time lost – but no names will be mentioned!”
Prof. Watson said this week’s celebration of the UK Schmidt’s 50th anniversary, as well as National Science Week, provided a great opportunity to reflect on his time in Coonabarabran and say thank you to the community.
“The 25 years I lived in Coonabarabran came with a supportive family and extended family, good friends, fantastic colleagues and a welcoming community – as well as a stunning natural environment,” Prof. Watson said.
“The 50th birthday of the telescope that brought me here is the perfect opportunity to say a heartfelt thank you to all!”