Major Radio Astronomy Facility to Transform Space Tourism in the North

A LEADING astronomy visitor attraction under the finest dark skies in Europe has submitted plans for a major new facility which will transform space tourism in the North East and enhance its distance learning offer about the Universe.

Kielder Observatory, set in the beautiful Kielder Water and Forest Park, in Northumberland, is looking to create a radio astronomy facility and is seeking planning permission from Northumberland County Council to site a new, five-metre-diameter, Spider 500 radio telescope.

Radio astronomy is an observing technique that is weather independent and delivers important observations that have supported the Big Bang theory and discovered new objects, such as pulsars.

Catherine Johns, CEO of Kielder Observatory, said the move into radio astronomy would allow Kielder to contribute to worldwide scientific research, attract university research into Northumberland and develop its remote outreach activities.

She said: “This investment would make a dramatic difference to our astronomy offer, especially now when people are understandably reluctant to travel, as it would mean you can access the observatory remotely. A school child in Sunderland or Darlington, for example, would be able to experience Kielder without setting foot here.

“We can use it for citizen science projects and engage a wide variety of audiences in STEM, inspiring and illuminating career pathways and providing student placements and apprenticeship opportunities. It’s an exciting time in the history of Kielder Observatory.”

The acquisition and installation of the telescope would be mostly funded by the Tanlaw Foundation.

Lord Tanlaw, of the Tanlaw Foundation, selected Kielder Observatory because of its commitment to public outreach and its remote location. He said: “It is hugely important that we can use this facility to reach a wider, hitherto excluded, audience to observe the Universe and create distance learning in astronomy, data science and astrobiology.”

Kevin May, forest management director for Forestry England, North England Forest District, said: “We believe this telescope will be unique in the forests we care for, building the profile of Kielder and Northumberland, and will allow many people to experience the Kielder skies via remote access. It will build our astrotourism offer across the North and educate people on the value of conserving and building natural capital awareness at an important time globally.”

Located just a few miles from the Scottish border, high upon Black Fell, the site for Kielder Observatory was chosen as one of the locations in the UK which has the least amount of light pollution. It is one of just two observatories in England which are in protected dark sky areas, as certified by the International Dark Sky Association.

Heidi Mottram, CEO of Northumbrian Water Group and chair of the Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust, said: “The observatory started as part of Kielder Art and Architecture, a sustained programme of large scale art installations around Kielder Water and Forest, and the Trust considers the addition of this telescope to add greatly to the appeal of Kielder.”

The Tanlaw telescope is part of “Kielder Observatory Constellations”, a developing strategy to reach beyond the observatory site and connect with people in innovative ways to convey that special Kielder moment of inspiration. The observatory has already announced the development of an augmented reality Kielder Observatory and is developing an online Kielder learning resource, with many more initiatives on the horizon.

The observatory, which attracts around 20,000 visitors per year, has a team of astronomers, guest speakers and volunteers who discuss and make observations about the Universe through a series of public events.

With the easing of the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, the observatory is opening its doors on August 1, with social distancing measures in place and group sizes reduced from August to October.

Ms Johns said that the remote site was geared up for providing a cultural experience within a safe space for people during the pandemic.

“We’re in the process of making all the necessary preparations to reopen and to ensure that people can continue to enjoy the wonders of the Universe in a safe way,” she added.

Major Radio Astronomy Facility to Transform Space Tourism in the North