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The moon, the stars and the Godlee
The Godlee Observatory
The observatory survived the Blitz during the Second World War

It has played its part in a century of astronomical events and yet the Godlee Observatory is still little known.

Sitting atop the University of Manchester's Sackville Street Building, it has seen many major moments across 100 years.

One defining point was 40 years ago on the night before the first moon landing in July 1969.

That evening, Godlee astronomers were keeping their eye on a crater which may have been a danger to the astronauts.

Kevin Kilburn, historian and Manchester Astronomical Society member, says observers were looking at the crater, called Aristarchus, as it was suspected of having volcanic activity.

"They started reporting bright spots in the crater and so on 19 July, a telegram was sent from here to NASA saying 'watch out for Aristarchus'," explains Mr Kilburn.

Aristarchus crater seen from Apollo 15 in orbit
The Godlee astronomers were watching the Aristarchus crater

"A telegram came back from the Apollo 11 crew, in lunar orbit, just before the landing, to report that they had in fact seen activity on the wall of that crater."

The Astronomical Society still has the telegram to this day.

Mr Kilburn also says as recently as March, the second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin, told the story of NASA asking them to look out for colours in the crater.

"It was quite obvious that Buzz Aldrin was referring to that telegram and that came from here."

Much more than the moon

A connection to the moon landing is not all the Godlee Observatory has to offer in the way of history.

Kevin Kilburn looks through telescope
The Manchester Astronomical Society is ensuring the observatory's survival

The wooden structure, which was gifted to the City of Manchester by cotton magnate and philanthropist Francis Godlee in 1903, has survived the city's tempestuous weather for more than a century - and the Blitz which, during the Second World War, obliterated much of Manchester.

All the main structures remain the same - the Octagon Room, the Library and the Dome.

The Octagon Room was originally home to meteorologists with the wall covered in weather clocks -but over the years, the clocks have been taken away.

Godlee's telescopes

The Manchester Astronomical Society now meets there every Thursday and regularly uses the observatory.

Antony Cross, from the Society, says one of the treasures of the Godlee Observatory is the Edwardian spiral 34-step staircase that leads up to the dome.

"The stairs approach a trap door and, with a creak sounding like something from Dracula's tomb, we enter the dome where standing proud since 1902 are the two telescopes."

The Godlee telescopes
The black dome that protects the telescopes is made of papier mâché

"We've a refracting telescope, which is the draw-type style. It's familiar with sea captains, only this one has a focal length of 11ft (3.35m).

"It's counter-balanced by a 12ins (30cm) reflector. People will be aware of Sir Isaac Newton and his reflective telescope. This is in exactly the same style."

The telescopes were put there by Sir Howard Grubb of Dublin, who was responsible for finishing many of the observatories around the world.

Other treasures

The telescopes are not the only things to make the Godlee Observatory special. Its dome, which opens to give the telescopes access to the night sky, is made of papier mâché.

It is only one of two papier mâché observatories to survive in the UK, according to Mr Cross, with the other being in Dundee.

The observatory is starting to fray a little at the edges but the Manchester Astronomical Society is maintaining it.

It means Godlee will be here for years to come and will continue to play its part in history.

The Godlee Observatory is open on Thursday evenings. To organise a trip, contact the Manchester Astronomical Society .

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