Have you ever wished you could climb up one of the towers of Ghent at night and get closer to the starry skies from an observatory? It turns out, you can.
On top of the Blandijnberg, in the Plateau-building of the University of Ghent, lies a hidden treasure: a fully-equipped 19th century observatory and grassy rooftop terrace.
No university without an observatory
When the University of Ghent was founded in 1817, it received a small telescope from King William I. However, it wasn’t until 1838 that the first observatory was built, above the main auditorium building. At the time, the meridian circle-type of telescope was used specifically to measure precise time – a necessity at the time of the great Belgian railway expansion. A few years later, this way of measuring time was made obsolete by the spread of the telegraph machine and the observatory was soon torn down.
By the second half of the 19th century, the astronomical and meteorological observations became a favourite past-time of the growing intellectual Ghent middle-class. Among them was the industrialist and innovator Desiré Van Monckhoven who had his own observatory with a top-quality telescope. After his death his entire astronomical equipment was sold to the University for a rather astronomical amount.
The reason that the University of Ghent was in a hurry to obtain the telescope was a law that stated that any university that wishes to teach science needs to have a working observatory. Nonetheless, it still took until 1904 for the observatory to be built at the top of the Science Institute.
Last one out switch off the lights
Despite the fact that the University was eager to have an observatory, observational astronomy at the UGent didn’t really take off. The location of the telescope inside the city and the developments in physics and astronomy meant that the observatory was never used extensively.
When the science faculties and with it the astronomy department of the UGent moved to Campus Sterre in the 1970’s, the old observatory was locked and the dust was left to settle. Some 20 years later the observatory building was deemed to be so dilapidated that it would need to be torn down, but the university asked Professor Dejonghe to see if some equipment could still be reused. Upon discovering the old telescope, he invited some amateur astronomers to verify what could be reused and together they decided to save the observatory from demolition. They managed to get the support of the famous Belgian weatherman Armand Pien, and the rest is history.
You don’t have to be a science nerd to appreciate the beauty of the magnificent Steinheil-Cooke telescope at the top dome. Even the setting itself looks like something out of an old book, with wooden walls and old instruments showcased in the vitrines.
The 2.5m long brass telescope lens is mounted on a heavy wrought-iron stand that keeps the telescope (and the image through the lens) stable. In technical terms, this is a 228mm, f/11 refractor on an equatorial mount and if you are an easily excitable nerd, like me, you can swoon over the ingenious mechanical tracking system. Or just have a peek at the sky through the lens.
For more detailed observations, the observatory also has a smaller dome with a modern telescope (a Meade LX200, in case you’re interested). Here you can experience the difference in how the skies are observed today compared to the old days.
If telescopes are not your thing, head out onto the grassy terrace to enjoy the magnificent view over Ghent. Why grass? The observatory also houses a weather station which requires natural ground to avoid mis-measurements.
Chances are that if you mention the name Armand Pien to anyone born before 1990, they would remember him as the most famous and longest-serving Belgian TV weatherman.
The BRT (as the VRT was known at the time) invited Pien to become the first TV weatherman at the Flemish national broadcaster in 1953 because he was at the time the only Dutch-speaking meteorologist at the Royal Meteorological Institute in Brussels (KMI).
Besides the BBC, the BRT was the only television station in Europe to have daily weather reports. Pien, who had a degree in astronomy from the University of Ghent, used his regular slot after the evening news to explain the weather in layman terms. He was known as a joker and always had a weather saying ready, even if it meant making one up!
Is there more?
If you’re interested in space and stars, you can become a supporting member of the society, join one of the work groups or participate in a lecture series. Young enthusiasts (12-15 years old) can join the Gentster group, which organises regular introduction sessions about astronomy.
The astrophotography and spectroscopy groups have access to two remotely operated telescopes in the US. This allows them to obtain high-quality images and solid data for interesting projects. The groups meet regularly and you can see their projects and meeting times on their website.
If you want to visit the observatory, or the UGent-Volkssterrenwacht Armand Pien by its official name, the doors are open to public every Wednesday, from 8pm until 10pm (but this changes in July and August, so check their website for details). The entrance to the observatory is from the Gezusters Lovelingstraat 1, where you can ring the bell and they let you in.
The observatory itself is divided over several floors, but there is always someone there to show you the way. The volunteers of the association are also super friendly and happy to answer any questions you might have.
The observatory organises special events, whenever there is something interesting happening in the sky. In winter, the starry skies observation days are a great opportunity to visit the observatory. That’s also when the visibility is usually at its the best. Weather permitting, you will be able to observe the sky through different telescopes, while several side activities will be going on during the evening. Check the website of the observatory or follow their Facebook page for all the latest events.
If you live outside of Ghent or want to look at the skies from a darker place, visit the website of the Flemish Astronomical Society for details of other events across Flanders.