A former University of Michigan observatory in South Africa has become the first digital planetarium in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Lamont-Hussey Observatory on Naval Hill, in Bloemfontein, Free State Province, South Africa, has always been a unique facility. Founded in 1928, it was U-M’s first observatory away from the increasingly light-polluted Ann Arbor. It was also one of three American university observatories built in the region at the time to take advantage of its clear view of the Southern Sky. Yale placed a telescope in Johannesburg, Harvard established its Boyden Observatory just outside of Bloemfontein, and U-M developed Lamont-Hussey, which housed the southern hemisphere’s largest refracting telescope with a 27-inch diameter lens.
But Lamont-Hussey had another unique feature; it was – and still is – the only known observatory to be located within a game reserve. Visitors to the observatory routinely passed giraffes, zebras, ostriches, and other animals.
The Lamont-Hussey Observatory is located in the Franklin Game Reserve.
And now it is the only digital planetarium in sub-Saharan Africa. Affiliated with the University of the Free State, it will be used as a teaching tool by many departments and will offer the public an immersive 3-D experience of the universe.
The original observatory was the brainchild of two U-M alumni: industrialist Robert Patterson Lamont, who provided the funds, and U-M Astronomy Professor William Joseph Hussey. Unfortunately, neither man ever saw the observatory that bears their names: Lamont never travelled to South Africa, and Hussey died tragically on his way to open the facility.
The observatory once housed the southern hemisphere’s largest refracting telescope.
While in use, the observatory’s telescope was dedicated primarily to the study of binary stars, two stars orbiting each other. It was owned and operated by U-M until 1971. When scientific observations ended, the telescope was dismantled and the 27-inch lens returned to Michigan, where it is currently in storage. The building was then donated to the Performing Arts Council of the Free State and used for many years as a theater.
Recently, a partnership converted the facility to a planetarium, building a dome within a dome to house a 12-meter seamless aluminum screen. Partners included: the Mangaung Metro Municipality; the Free State Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs; the University of the Free State; and the South African Department of Science and Technology.
The new Naval Hill Planetarium had its formal academic dedication on November 1, 2013. Astronomy Research Professor Patrick Seitzer spoke on behalf of U-M and brought letters of congratulation from University President Mary Sue Coleman, LSA Dean Susan A. Gelman, and Astronomy Department Chair Joel Bregman. An audience from throughout South Africa attended.
Details on show times at the new Naval Hill Planetarium are available here. The featured show Space Junk, concerning the growing problem of orbital debris, was contributed by the U-M Department of Astronomy.