Proposed Hermanus Observatory


The physical facility

Hermanus’s Astronomy Education Centre & Observatory (AEC&O) comprises four different structures for differentiated and specific purposes:

  1. A Φ16m (diameter) hall which will serve as display area and meeting or presentation facility with a kitchenette, toilets and office.  The walls and slightly domed ceiling will be utilised for thematic astronomy educational displays.
  2. A three-tiered open-air amphitheatre catering for 120 people on top of the hall (to reduce the Centre’s footprint) will be used for conducting night presentations – weather permitting! – and star-gazing sessions, or day-time astronomy, fynbos and/or other science lectures or classes.  The seats will be thermally neutral and the floor grassed to avoid heat-induced vortices which are detrimental to seeing, since 4 – 5 electrically serviced telescope piers will be built into the floor for members to mount their telescopes on.

Similar to Stonehenge, Avebury or similar ancient astronomy sites the directions of cardinal points will be indicated through slits in the amphitheatre seats at the summer and winter solstice and equinox sunrises and sunsets.  This will undoubtedly become a popular venue from which science and geography classes will be able to observe the sunrises and sunsets at these important milestones on the astronomical calendar.

The fact that the entrance axis of the Centre coincides exactly with the direction of the summer solstice is either a fortuitous coincidence, benign blessing or both!

The outside walls of both the hall and amphitheatre will be bermed and planted with indigenous plants to ensure that the overall structure blends in with the environment in an aesthetically pleasing manner.  Ironically, the only visible infringement on the natural environment will be an (initially) “unusually uniform” green area, which will “roughen” and blend more completely with the environment with the passage of time.

  1. A 6 x 15m observatory with roll-off roofs which will be able to house three telescopes and serve as convenient base from which to conduct both casual and serious observation sessions.  As with the hall and amphitheatre the non-South walls will be bermed and, like the roll-off roof, vegetated.
  1. There will also be Sunrise-Movement Wall on which the directions of sunrise over the Walker Bay horizon at various times of the year between summer and winter solstices will be embossed, as viewed from an Observation Rock.  A sundial around the Observation Rock will use the observer as its gnomon, so that the observer’s shadow will indicate the local time in sunny daylight.

A 5 – 8m diameter celestial sphere showing the positions of 15 – 20 of the best-known celestial objects in mid-March, when the dominant winter (Scorpio, Sagittarius) and summer (Orion) constellations are both visible, will be installed over the Observation Rock.

The centre will be self-sufficient service-wise: Solar Panels+Batteries+Invertor for electricity, gas for heating, water tanks (buried in the berms) for water and a conservancy tank for sewerage.

The attached plans and 3D views of the design quantify and visualize the above description.

Educational focus : Daytime astronomy

The Centre will embody the concept of Daytime Astronomy, whereby both casual and pre-meditated visitors to the Centre will learn more about astronomy in a ½ – 4 hour visit than they would normally learn from weeks or even months of night-time observation through telescopes in an/any  observatory.

Because of its proximity to the main lookout point it is certain that the open air amphitheatre will become a popular sun-downer spot.  The HAC therefore plans to teach all visitors to the Centre – whether incidental or intended – two concepts:

  1. How and why sundials work.  This implies that the Centre includes as many different types of sundials as can be reasonably incorporated into it.  There will be graphical depictions as well as worded explanations of where the “Time Correction” or “Equation of Time” which is printed/ engraved on every sundial actually come from:
  1. The eccentric, as opposed to circular, orbit of the earth around the Sun, and
  2. The fact that the earth’s axis of rotation is tilted at 23.44 degrees to the plane of the earth’s (and other planets) orbit around the sun.
  1. How celestial objects move across the sky in 24 hours and 12 months.  These concepts will be illustrated b.m.o. of an interactive model of the celestial sphere (similar to the earth’s lines of latitude and longitude) on which the best known constellations and celestial objects will be depicted, probably using optical fibres.  As far as the HAC knows, this will be the first educational model of this nature yet to be constructed anywhere.

Display themes

All possible display areas (walls, slightly domed ceiling, floors, surrounding nature reserve) will be utilised to display static or varying themes.  Static themes will include several Solar System scale models: Hanging from the hall’s ceiling (with a football-sized Sun), in the amphitheatre floor (with the central daylight window for the hall below fixing the Sun’s diameter) or rocks depicting the planets to size and distance along Rotary Drive using the amphitheatre diameter as Solar diameter.  These will practically and repetitively illustrate the difficult-to-grasp concept of the huge scale of the Solar System.

Understandable models to approximately illustrate the size and scale of the Milky Way, the local group of galaxies and the large scale structure of the Universe have yet to be conceptualised and designed, but will be mandatory.

Other thematic concepts such as Lunar Phases and variations, Milestones in Astronomy, Giants in Astronomy (both of whom start with Aristarchus almost 3 centuries BC!), Spectroscopy (the analysis of starlight), the Milky Way structure, Exo-planets, Stellar Evolution (the birth and death of stars) will be displayed either physically through models, wall plastering techniques or electronic means.

It is safe to predict that the AEC&O will become a popular – maybe even mandatory – outing for science classes from local and other Western Cape schools to teach basic astronomy principles in a hands-on, physically modelled manner.

Hopefully this concept, or inevitable refinements thereof, will be replicated in other (all?) parts of the country to stimulate an awareness of astronomy in particular – and science in general – throughout the country.

The “bottom line”

In summary, the proposed Astronomy Education Centre will set a new benchmark in Astronomy and Science awareness and hands-on education in South Africa, which through replication will make a significant contribution to the important and lofty ideal of promoting awareness of and interest in Astronomy and Science in South Africa.

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