Astronomy in Malta 2009
by Tony Tanti President Astronomical Society of Malta
Astronomy is the study of the universe beyond Earth's atmosphere.
It does not claim to predict our future like astrology.
Rather, through the use of physics principles, astronomy explains the evolution of the universe, and through sound mathematical simulations attempts to forecast its development.
Astronomy has always been described as one of the oldest sciences.
Astronomers of early civilizations performed methodical observations of the night sky, and astronomical artifacts have been found from much earlier periods.
However, it was since the invention of the telescope that astronomy has developed into a modern science.
And it is only in the last century, and particularly the last few decades that we have developed the technology to study the universe in greater detail.
Historical background to astronomy in Malta
Intimately intertwined in the long history of the Maltese Islands, astronomy holds deep roots dating back to prehistoric times.
There is evidence to suggest that the inhabitants of these islands have been observing the night sky and the heavenly bodies since the Neolithic age.
Studies have shown an astronomical alignment of one of the Mnajdra temples, suggesting a strong astronomical influence on the culture of these peoples.
Closer to contemporary times, we have documented evidence of the existence of specific astronomical observatories built for the scientific pursuit of the heavens.
In the 1780s, Grand Master De Rohan set up an observatory at his Palace in the capital city, Valletta.
The twentieth century has seen the establishment of two independent professional observatories in Malta:
The Cambridge Solar Research Station was set up in 1966 at Rabat to study solar magnetism; while the University College of Dublin set up an observatory at Qrendi to observe pulsars.
The Solar Research Station utilized William Lassell’s observations of viewing conditions in Malta in their favourable consideration of coming to Malta.
William Lassell himself was an eminent English astronomer who set up base in Malta to pursue his astronomical observations.
He was here twice: From 1851 to 1852, and between 1861 and 1865. During his second visit, he mounted one of the most powerful telescopes in the world at that time at Tigne’ Point in Sliema.
Along with these observatories, a multitude of smaller private observatories have been set up along the years.
Astronomical societies in Malta
Amateur astronomers world-wide associate in astronomical societies, and Malta is no exception.
The Malta Cultural Institute, through its Circle for Astronomical Studies, was a pioneer.
The Astronomical Society of Malta was founded in 1984, born out of a merger between the Student’s Astronomical Circle and the Astronomical Association, both of which having been founded in the late 1970s.
A few years ago an Astronomical Sciences Group was formed within the Department of Physics of the University of Malta.
Contributions to astronomy by Maltese citizens
Throughout the years, a small number of Maltese professional astronomers have made important contributions to the science.
Astronomy is one of the few sciences where amateurs can still play an active role, and Maltese amateur astronomers are no exception in this regard.
For example, there are Maltese amateurs who have been carrying out observations of the Sun on a daily basis for years.
A number of individuals have contributed numerous observations of variable stars and comets to foreign astronomical institutions.
A dedicated core of enthusiasts are successfully employing the latest imaging technology to capture the beauty of the night sky.
Public astronomical observatory
Judging from the response that we get during our activities, there is a widespread interest in astronomy among the Maltese public.
We can confidently say that astronomy is alive and kicking in Malta, despite the fact that, here too, light pollution is taking its toll on the night sky.
To bring Malta on a par with other countries only one thing is still needed: the establishment of a public astronomical observatory.
Discussions are underway with the authorities about the possibility of setting up an observatory in Malta, which could serve as both an educational and a research tool.
I augur that, in the near future, Malta will have its own astronomical observatory which will continue a centuries-old tradition of observatories that have contributed greatly to the advancement of astronomy.