A collaboration between Northern Ireland and the Republic Observatory shows how science can transcend the politics of division.
The island’s contributions to astronomical research have global implications, but remain one of the best kept secrets in the country.
For more than 200 years, Dunsink Observatory near Dublin and Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland have been instrumental in scientific discoveries.
The Armagh Observatory is home to “a real piece of astronomical history,” with the world’s oldest telescope still in place.
“The NGC, the new general catalog, is probably our most famous work,” explained Observatory Director Michael Burton.
“This is a catalog of the most interesting nebulae of objects in the night sky, mapped and cataloged using telescopes still in use today.”
Dunsink Observatory is famous not only in astronomy but also in mathematics.
It was here that the former Irish Astronomer Royal, Sir Rowan William Hamilton, invented linear algebra.
Today, students at Dunsink are studying the Sun using data from the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter mission.
Universities on both sides of the border have teamed up to build the radio telescope – LOFAR – at Castle Beale in County Offaly.
Dunsink Observatory director Peter Gallagher said: “This telescope allows us to study explosions from the sun and how they affect our planet.
“It helps us observe exoplanets, as small or large planets orbiting other stars.
“It helps us understand the origin of the universe, and all the galaxies and all the stars and where we actually came from.”
Astronomical research was the subject of the first cross-border agreement in which the governments of the North and the South found common ground in science.
Reviving the partnership between the observatories will help the island maintain its global research status.
Caitriona Mullan, the project’s strategic advisor, said the partnership came at a time when “we need hope”.
She added: “To be able to look at those crown jewels of scientific research that were established during the Age of Enlightenment, as people recognize the role of science in the development of human knowledge and in the democratization of knowledge, I think it’s very rewarding to think about.”