Going South

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Going South

Things didn’t get off to a good start for the Cape of Good Hope Royal Observatory — the first permanent observatory in Africa.

When its director arrived in South Africa to start construction, he was dropped off in the wrong spot. It took weeks to move his gear to the right spot, in present-day Cape Town. Then it took years to complete the first major building, atop a small hill surrounded by swamps and populated by snakes. Yet the observatory soon became a leading research center.

The observatory was established by the King of England 200 years ago this week. And it’s celebrating the anniversary with a virtual conference.

The observatory’s original goal was to chart the southern stars, which would allow ships to safely navigate the African coast. Over the decades, though, its work expanded. Its astronomers made the best measurement of the distance to the Sun of its time — the “yardstick” for measuring the entire solar system. They also made the first good measurement of the distance to another star. And they compiled many star catalogs.

In 1972, the observatory merged with another one. A new site, with new telescopes, was built inland, where the skies were clear and dark. It remains busy today.

The Cape observatory is headquarters for the operation. Many of its original buildings are still in use. And a couple of years ago, the observatory was declared a national heritage site — two centuries after its founding.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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