Safety concerns close observatory

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THE Southland Astronomical Society is homeless and domeless, and it could be several years before the group finds a new home.

The astronomical society was forced to move out of the observatory beside the Southland Museum & Art Gallery (SMAG) two weeks ago after the structure was deemed unsafe.

Southland Astronomical Society president Phil Burt said a meeting was held on Monday to set up a sub-committee to plan out steps for the group’s future with a view to establishing an observatory on leased land somewhere in the city. However, the society was “looking at years rather than months for this to mature”.

The group dismantled and removed its 10-inch telescope – purchased and installed less than a year ago – last Friday.

Mr Burt said the declaration followed a recent safety report carried out on SMAG properties.

SMAG board chairman Lloyd Esler – who is also a member of the Southland Astronomical Society and an Invercargill city councillor – said the museum board had carried out the inspections after receiving a letter from the city council’s safety committee.

The letter said the observatory was not up to standard and needed to be fixed or closed.

Southland Astronomical Society member Anton Dickens, of Invercargill, shows children and parents the moons of Jupiter through one of the society’s telescopes set up on the Queens Park tennis courts as part of the school holidays programme. More than 100 people attended.

“To make it safe it would need a lot of work… although the structure itself is perfectly sound,” Mr Esler said.

SMAG owns the observatory building but Mr Esler said with the observatory possibly needing demolition to make way for a proposed museum upgrade, the board was “reluctant to spend money on something which may not be there very long”.

However, Mr Esler did not believe closing the observatory was related to the proposed upgrade.

“Council’s probably no closer [to revisiting the museum upgrade idea] than we were a year ago. It’s just a case of regulation having finally caught up [with the observatory building],” he said.

Mr Burt said he had received a phone call from a member of the SMAG trust board last Thursday night informing him the observatory had failed its safety inspection.

“It’s not the museum’s fault. They can no longer allow us to operate out of there,” he said.

After the astronomical society finished moving out of the observatory, the locks were changed and the building became off-limits, Mr Burt said.

For the remainder of the winter it would probably set up the telescope on the Queens Park tennis courts on Wednesday nights, Mr Burt said.

SMAG operations manager Hayley Browne said “it was a sad decision, but it simply came down to health and safety, of which the stairs [to the observatory] were a big factor, but not the only one”.

Flooring and lighting were other listed safety issues.

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