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The Australian National University

Mt Stromlo Observatory

Oddie Dome, 1911 (Source: National Archives of Australia)
View of Observatory, 1960s (Source: National Archives of Australia)
Yale Columbia Telescope, Post 2003 Bushfires (Source: ANU)

Aboriginal history

The night sky has been used by Aboriginal people for thousands years, for navigation, as a calendar and within the stories of the Dreaming. Archaeological evidence of celestial calendars made of rocks in Victoria suggest that Aboriginal people may have been the world's first astronomers. Aboriginal people in the Canberra region have indicated that the dark nebula of the Milky Way (the Emu in the Sky), and the Pleiades star cluster (the Seven Sisters) are of particular cultural importance.

A number of Indigenous sites have been located in the areas adjacent to Mt Stromlo, all of them either 'Isolated Artefacts' or small 'Artefact Scatters'. On the Stromlo Campus itself two isolated unretouched flakes have been found (Faulkner 2004). In the region of Stromlo, there appears to be a strong tendency for sites to be located on level ground, closer to the river systems.

Eyes on the skies

The ANU Mount Stromlo Observatory covers an area of 81 hectares on the summit of Canberra's Mt Stromlo. The Observatory is one of the oldest institutions in Canberra, established as the Commonwealth Solar Observatory (CSO) in 1924, and is home to the first Commonwealth built building in the ACT - The Oddie Dome (1911). The original interests of the CSO were focussed on solar and atmospheric physics.

From 1911, the site developed rapidly with the construction of the CSO Administration Building (1924), the Director's Residence (1928) and the sequential development of the telescopes. During World War II, the Observatory served as an optical munitions establishment, and after the war it developed new research directions in stellar and galactic astronomy with a change of name to the Commonwealth Observatory.

ANU and Stromlo

After the establishment of ANU in 1946, joint staff appointments were made between ANU and the Commonwealth Observatory; and graduate students from the ANU began studying at the Observatory. The first PhD degree and first DSc degree awarded by the University (other than honorary degrees) were in Astronomy. Mount Stromlo Observatory left the Commonwealth Department of the Interior and formally joined ANU in 1957.

In the 1950s, with light pollution from Canberra's suburban spread was diminishing the optical astronomy capabilities at Mt Stromlo in the early 1960s, after a lengthy search for a suitable site, Siding Spring (near Coonabarabran) was chosen to provide a permanent dark sky. Together, the Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories are amongst the leading astronomical observatories in the world.

Recent history

On the 18 January 2003, a devastating bushfire with winds of over 200km per hour devastated the Observatory. The fire gutted five telescopes, the site workshop, the original Commonwealth Solar Observatory administration building and eight houses including the iconic Director's Residence.

Since this time ANU has been undertaking a program of rebuilding at the site, restoring much of its lost functionality. Several of the damaged buildings are now managed as ruins and stand as a stark reminder of the fire. Optical astronomy is no longer undertaken at this site, however recent development of the site's manufacturing and industrial capabilities ensure the site is a thriving and world class research centre. The site is listed on the Commonwealth Heritage List.

Updated:  26 May 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Facilities & Services Division/Page Contact:  Systems & Information Technology