This observatory, inaugurated in 1967, moved to the Canary Islands in 1982

The Isaac Newton Telescope: an abandoned astronomical observatory in Herstmonceux

Stargazing has a long history in the UK. It was there that the Royal Greenwich Observatory was founded in 1675.

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The problem that that country had when observing the sky has to do with its meteorology, on the one hand, and with pollution. Being located in London, the pollution that affected the British capital for a long time ended up affecting astronomical observations in Greenwich. After World War II the idea of a large reflecting telescope arose for British astronomers. The new project was announced at the start of the celebrations of the third centenary of the birth of Isaac Newton, which had been postponed from 1942 to 1946 because of the war.

The Isaac Newton Telescope in November 1967, once completed and shortly before its inauguration (Photo: The Observatory Science Centre).

The place chosen for the telescope, which would bear the name of Isaac Newton, was Herstmonceux, in the county of Sussex, in the south of England. Half of the project was paid for by the Admiralty of the British Royal Navy. The project progressed very slowly and the telescope took 20 years to complete, being inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II on December 1, 1967.

An image of the observations from the Isaac Newton Telescope in the almost 12 years that it was active (Photo: The Observatory Science Centre).

The delay in its construction ended up condemning the Isaac Newton Telescope to failure. By the time it was inaugurated, air travel was already cheaper and, because of this, many British universities had already opted to by telescopes abroad, with better visibility than Herstmonceux, to make their astronomical observations. The Isaac Newton Telescope ceased its observations in May 1979. In 1982 the telescope's Zerodur mirror was transferred to the Canary Islands, to the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, on the island of La Palma, inaugurated in 1985, current headquarters of the Isaac Newton Observatory.

The decommissioning of the Isaac Newton Telescope, in an image from the late 1970s or early 1980s (Photo: The Observatory Science Centre).

No longer useful, the old Herstmonceux telescope tower was closed in 1990. The equipment that was still in the tower was transferred to Cambridge, and finally in 1998 the observatory was abandoned, a sad end to 323 years of astronomical observation in the United Kingdom.

The Isaac Newton Telescope after its abandonment (Photo: The Observatory Science Centre).

Today, the old observatory has become an attractive place for urban explorers. VacantHaven has just posted a video showing the inside:


Main photo: The Observatory Science Centre.

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