From South Yorkshire to the stars: The hidden observatory that offers a glimpse of far-off galaxies

From a corner of a field in an out-of-the-way spot in South Yorkshire, planets, stars and astronomical phenomena millions of light years from Earth can be examined in close detail.

Wednesday, 17th July 2019, 2:30 pm
Updated Monday, 29th July 2019, 11:10 pm

For while UNESCO World Heritage status was last weekend bestowed upon Jodrell Bank, the Cheshire centre famous for its enormous Lovell telescope, the region has a mini counterpart.

The J.A. Jones Observatory, out in the countryside at the village of Hoober near Rotherham, might be a more modest proposition but it is just as impressive in its own way.

Owned by a volunteer-led charity, the Mexborough and Swinton Astronomical Society, the domed building is almost 30 years old - equipped with powerful viewing devices bought by members and supporters, it's a place where enthusiasts and visitors gather regularly to take in the wonders of space.

The J.A. Jones Hoober Observatory. Society member Roy Gunson takes in the stars. Picture: Dean Atkins

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And the observatory's hillside location, it turns out, was carefully chosen.

"We're up here because we're above the light pollution," explains Phil Muffett, who joined in 1982 as a teenager.

"If we had the telescope in our back garden it'd be an absolute waste of time."

The society - led by president Dr Allan Chapman, the TV presenter and Oxford University lecturer - was formed in 1978, while the observatory - named after a member - was built in 1991 on land owned by the water authority which maintains the reservoir next door. The group made the facility's white-painted steel dome themselves in a local library, bringing it up to Hoober in pieces and then meticulously reassembling it.

The effort was well worth it, says Phil.

"You can see two and a quarter billion light years with your naked eye," he says. "What we're looking at is stuff that's further away.”

Similar small observatories are dotted around Britain, but there are no others in the immediate vicinity, Phil points out. “There’s nothing else like it round here.”

Les Marsden, the society's sole surviving founder, chips in with a recommendation. "Jupiter, I think, is one for everybody to look at. Venus is just clouds. If you ever want to look at your first thing through a telescope, or binoculars, just look at Jupiter. That'll really bite you."

Even a glimpse of the moon can be overwhelming for beginners, says Les. "Kids will back away when they look through the eyepiece because it's all craters and mountains - it worries them."

A retired joiner aged 79, as a child Les lived in a cottage close to where the observatory is today. "I'm a non-educated lad," he says. "I just used to sit in our back garden, look up and wonder - you've read what Ursa Major looks like, and Cassiopeia, so you start making shapes and picking them out."

Les banded together with three friends to form the society, which has around 30 members with different backgrounds - Phil is a building inspector for Rotherham Council, while fellow member Paul D'Silva used to be a teacher.

"There's a real sense of accomplishment and wonder," says Paul when asked about his fascination with space. "On a personal level, I'm seeing images through my eyes that very few people in the world actually see. Not because it's not available, but because they can't be bothered to look."

Inside the dome, Paul demonstrates how the telescope system works. A heavy, whirring machine, it is split into three parts, starting with a base that extends through the building to keep it 'rock steady', then a mount that tracks the sky, keeping targets fixed in the eyepiece. The telescopes themselves - a 14-inch Celestron and a five-inch Takahashi TOA, to be precise - gather huge amounts of light, enabling the user to gaze at faint objects.

Members have detected brown dwarfs - masses that are neither planets or stars - and have helped to identify galaxies.

"We have a member now in Spain and he has a working relationship with NASA - he's a solar observer, looking at the sun," says Paul. "They use his images and allow him to look at some of their more confidential data."

Space exploration, he says, has increased our understanding of Earth's preciousness.

"You can pinpoint when the environmental movement really kicked off - that was in December 1968 when the Apollo 8 mission sent back that iconic 'blue marble' picture. That's when people said 'We're here, in the blackness of space, if we don't look after our planet, we're going to face our end'."

Fifty years on from the day man first set foot on the Moon, people's lives have benefited from technology developed for extraterrestrial missions, such as X-ray imaging, GPS navigation, CT scanners and Teflon material.

"We might not think about it having a direct impact on our lives, but it does," says Paul. "I've just turned 60 and I remember my brothers going to Australia in 1975 - you used to have to book a telephone call a week in advance. You'd get 20 minutes on the line, and then the operator would come in and say 'Time's up'. Now you just ring up as if they were down the road. All of that is down to the space programme."

The society paid £1,000 to buy the land on which the observatory stands, protecting its future. The building has just been extended through a £30,000 National Lottery-funded scheme called 'Project Aquarius', which has finally brought running water to the site, as well as a disabled toilet and a larger classroom for talks. Non-members are welcome to visit on Thursday nights and the society goes into schools, encouraging pupils to muse on the vastness of space.

The big conundrum, of course, is whether there is life on distant worlds - a question Paul thinks is 'far more complicated' than it seems.

"I think what most people miss out in their deliberations is cosmological time," he says. "There might be other people out there, but they're popping up all over the universe at different times. The likelihood is we're just going to be like ships in the night."

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