The Astrographic Catalogue

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Optical Instrument and accessories for measurement of astronomical photograph plates, used at Sydney Observatory (H10140-1). Image: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

In 1887 observatories worldwide embarked on an ambitious project to photograph the entire sky, cataloguing the positions of millions of stars to produce a document known as the Astrographic Catalogue. Australia played an important role in this effort, with Sydney, Melbourne and Perth Observatories all involved in the project. Each observatory was allocated part of the sky. Melbourne Observatory was given a region around the south celestial pole (the part of the sky directly overhead the South Pole), and Sydney Observatory a section of the sky which included the Southern Cross and a large part of the Milky Way.

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Star map showing the region of the sky mapped by Sydney Observatory for the Astrographic Catalogue (P3549-14). Image: Sarah Reeves, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

Prior to this, the positions of stars were measured by eye by an astronomer peering through a telescope – a slow and tedious process. But with the advent of photography came the ability to detect stars too faint to be seen through the telescope, and to observe thousands of stars at a time and record them for later measurement. Using a special kind of telescope known as an astrograph, photographic plates were exposed to starlight to produce images of the sky from which the catalogue was eventually compiled.

The Melbourne Astrographic telescope on display at Sydney Observatory (2008/19/1). Image: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

But how did we get the positions of stars from these photographic plates? Sydney Observatory used optical plate measuring machines, which allowed the positions of the stars to be measured in Right Ascension and Declination (equivalent to latitude and longitude on Earth). This instrument improved on earlier designs by introducing an eyepiece scale which drastically reduced the time required to measure the stars on each plate. The painstaking measurements were made by hand, by groups of women known as ‘computers’ and recorded in what became known as the ‘Ladies’ Logs’. The contribution of these women to Australian astronomy has recently been studied in detail.

Following the closure of Melbourne Observatory in 1944, due to encroaching light pollution, Sydney Observatory took responsibility for processing the remaining photographic plates from Melbourne Observatory, as well as their own. In total Melbourne Observatory measured the positions of 218 000 stars, and Sydney Observatory 430 000. The Melbourne Astrographic telescope was also relocated to Sydney Observatory and in 2014 a major conservation project was completed to restore the telescope, which you can read about here and here. It is now on display in Sydney Observatory’s East Dome, along with one of the plate measuring machines, photographs of the work in progress, and excerpts from the Ladies’ Logs.

As an astronomer I have always been fascinated by the story of the Astrographic Catalogue, and the enormous amount of work that went into realising this project (which continued well into the 20th century). So I was thrilled on a recent trip down into MAAS’ basement collection store to come across a second one of these instruments. It has rekindled my interest in this part of astronomical history and I’m now eagerly tearing through The Glass Universe, by Dava Sobel, which details the incredible astronomical discoveries made by the women who measured another set of photographic plates taken at Harvard Observatory.

Written by Sarah Reeves.

The East Dome at Sydney Observatory. Image: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.
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2 responses to “The Astrographic Catalogue

  • Interesting article, Sarah. Are you aware that the Perth Astrographic Telescope is on its original mount, under its original dome , (but not the original building, the Perth Observatory had to be moved because of the light pollution) and is frequently demonstrated to the public by volunteers. One of the volunteers operated it when he was employed by the PO. We also have the plate measuring machine on display in the museum together
    with a blurb on the “computers” and a sample of their
    calculations.
    The Perth Observatory Volunteer Group now run the observatory for public outreach and reach 5000 – 7000 people per year with Star Viewing and Obs tours. All these people see our museum, with many having formal
    tours of the museum and Astrograph. We have a nationally significant heritage collection, of which we are extremely proud .
    Come and visit us one day, (or better, night). Mention your article and your interest. You would be most welcome.

    • Thanks for the information John, I was not aware that the Perth Astrographic Telescope was on display there. If I’m ever in Perth I will be sure to visit!

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