Astronomy leaves Utrecht

After 370 years, Utrecht University, the Netherlands, says farewell to astronomy. In 1642 the first astronomical observations were made at the world’s second university observatory. As of March 2012, all astronomical activities have been transferred to other universities, leaving a four centuries old heritage. Let us take a look at the transit of Venus records of Utrecht Observatory.

At all previous transits of Venus since 1761, Utrecht Observatory played a role. It’s uncertain if any observations were actually made in 1761. Professor Giovan Castiglione had asked for a large sum to buy the novelty among telescopes, an achromatic refractor, but the instrument was never purchased and there’s no record of an observation of the transit of Venus. Gerband Back, also living in Utrecht and working as a lawyer and surveyor, published some calculations with regard to the transit in the local newspaper, but it is unknown if he observed it.
In 1769 professor Johann Hennert observed the transit of Venus from the Smeetoren, where the observatory was located (depicted to the left). Thick clouds prevented him to see anything, but this disappointment may have been softened by the fact that he also got married that day. In fact, the newly wed watched the astronomical phenomenon together.
In 1874 the transit wasn’t visible from the Netherlands, but the only Dutch expedition was led by an astronomer from Utrecht, Jean Oudemans. Oudemans was director of the observatory and headed the transit of Venus operations on the island Réunion. The team had a brand new photoheliograph, with which they were planning to picture the sun while the transit was in progress. Clouds, however, spoiled the opportunity. Oudemans also observed the transit of Venus in the year 1882, this time from the new observatory building in Utrecht. At the crucial time, the sun was obscured by the wind direction indicator of the neighbouring meteorological institute.
In 2004 the transit of Venus was again observed by astronomers from Utrecht Observatory, this time with the Dutch Open Telescope (DOT) on La Palma, an instrument exploited by the university. The DOT successfully observed the 2004 transit with large interest from the public; the DOT movies were advertised at the Astronomy Picture of the Day and websites.

This week a conference was held in Utrecht to look back at the last 370 years of astronomical research. The city and astronomy have a rich history together, and it’s a sad thing this history now comes to an end.

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