Seeing Stars – Astronomy Trip to Armagh Planetarium

Seeing Stars –

A parent’s view of the Astronomy School Trip to the Armagh Observatory & Planetarium.


Losing any shred of dignity I may have had I in my daughter’s eyes, I went on the school trip to the Armagh Observatory on the 18 December 2012.  I had been given a set of instructions, not by Mrs Milligan, but by my daughter before the trip.  Do your best not to embarrass me in front of my friends; do not ask endless questions or worse force me to answer these questions; refrain from squealing with excitement when you see a) The Grubb Telescope or b) the Ernshaw long-case clock circa 1808 (cutting edge time technology  of its day).  Do not volunteer me for activities and DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES wear your celestial t-shirt, it is not appropriate to go themed.

This all started when I collected Hannah from Astronomy Camp at Halloween in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. I spoke to Mrs Milligan and told her that I had a contact at the Observatory and how it would make a really good trip for the GCSE group. A number of emails later Mrs Milligan had organised the day trip and it was at this point I begged to go too. My kids used to love me going on their school trip but admittedly that was in primary school, but with my Access NI accreditation still valid I offered my assistance and paid up for two.

Patrick Moore had a long association with Armagh

King George III’s telescope used to view the transit of Venus in 1769









I have always been interested in stargazing and when the opportunity arose I would attend any special events organised by the Irish Astronomical Association, usually with the kids in tow.  So it is no surprise that Hannah was keen to study the Year 10 GCSE in Astronomy.  The coach left Glenlola on a pretty frosty morning and it wasn’t that long before we arrived at the Armagh Observatory.  Crammed into their dining room we waited for our special tour; special because you have to be invited!  We met the Director Professor Mark Bailey and were told the history of the Armagh Observatory by John and its importance in the world of Astronomy.  The Observatory was established in 1790 by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Richard Robinson.  He was a rich and influential man who embodied the spirit of his age.  Impressed by the Rector of Cookstown who observed and reported on the transit of Mercury to the Royal Astronomer in England from his own small private observatory in 1782, the Archbishop Robinson decided to include an Observatory in his plans for the City of Armagh.

The Ernshaw long-case clock circa 1808

The infamous Grubb telescope with John our guide











The need for accurate positions of stars was one of the principal reasons for the observatory as they were required for ship navigation to trade goods across the Empire but it was also used to provide a framework for the measurement of the positions of the planets.

This latter reason was scientifically more important as it was only by careful, frequent and accurate observations of the planets, that Newton’s law of gravitation, one of the most fundamental laws of physics, could be verified.  Admit it; I lost you all there for a moment didn’t I?  Anyway the Observatory has a number of historically important telescopes and clocks which we all got to look at before going outside and taking part in the human orrery which allowed the girls to play the parts of the planets moving around the sun in a big scale model.  It explains the fundamental ideas in astronomy, mathematics and space science in a fun way.

Unfortunately Glenlola school uniform doesn’t include Ugg boots to keep the toes from freezing, so eventually they let us back inside to thaw out and have lunch before heading off again to the Planetarium in the afternoon.

I’m sure many of you have been to the Planetarium and so it will not surprise you to discover the delights of the 3D digital theatre and the comfy chairs.  If you haven’t been for a while it’s definitely worth a trip and interesting for all the family.  After the star show the girls were treated to a special question and answer session helping them to have a greater understanding of the GCSE course before getting back on the bus to Bangor.

I would like to thank the teachers, Mrs Milligan and Mrs Edwards and not forgetting Hannah, for permitting me to go on the Astronomy Trip.  I had a great time.  By the way, Hannah hid my cosmic t-shirt on the day of the trip; just to be sure I didn’t embarrass her. Hopefully in time and with therapy she’ll make a full recovery.

Nikki Ardill

Mother of Hannah, Year 10