M3 Features

Kolkata gets a new observatory

March 11, 2014

The 150-year-old observatory atop St Xavier’s College, that was lying defunct for many years, has been repaired as a result of the college’s revival efforts.

On March 10, the fully restored observatory was put to use by the college that has detailed plans to start astronomy-related studies. The dome that can be seen both from the Park Street and Wood Street ends of the college is actually the observatory. It now opens up and rotates to let one observe the celestial bodies with the help of a powerful telescope. 

One of the first observatories in the country, it was started way back in 1867 by Father Eugene Lafont, who had joined the college as a teacher two years earlier. The idea was to start spectroscopic studies of the sun and planetary atmosphere in conjugation with other European laboratories. Father Lafont is considered to be the pioneer of modern science teaching in Bengal and it is through the telescope that he had imported from London for the St Xavier’s observatory that he had predicted the killer cyclone of November 1867.

A drawing of Father Eugene Lafont

While it is among the oldest in the country, it is definitely the oldest and biggest observatory housed on an educational campus. The old observatory had become defunct for a long time because the telescope needed overhauling and its spare parts were not available. The present administration, however, decided to rebuild the observatory by adding a new dome and a modern telescope.

The present dome is bigger than the original and has a gigantic diameter of 7.3 metres and a height of 4.5 metres. The funds for the new astronomy observatory with a hemispherical rotating motorised dome for night-time observations have come from grants provided by the ministry of science and technology. Along with this observatory, another solar observatory with motorised retraceable sliding roof has also been created for day-time experiments. This is a completely new addition to the college’s existing facilities.

The dome is electromechanically driven and rotates in both directions, and has a slit to help the telescope focus at the required planet and direction. The Celestron telescope has been imported from the US and has a computerised German equatorial mount.

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