A Brief History

Kangaroo and joey grazing in front of the AAT dome. Image credit Angel Lopez-Sanchez

The Anglo-Australian Telescope was established after representations had been made to the Australian and British Governments in the mid-1960s by the Australian Academy of Science and the Royal Society of London. It was decided in April 1967 to build a large optical telescope, similar in design to the 3.8-metre telescope of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in the United States. A site for the telescope was chosen on Siding Spring Mountain, near the New South Wales town of Coonabarabran, where the Australian National University had operated an observatory since 1965.

A Joint Policy Committee with representatives of each government served as an executive body from 1967 to 1971, when it was succeeded by the Anglo-Australian Telescope Board. The Board operated under the authority of the Anglo-Australian Telescope Agreement which came into effect in 1971. Under this agreement, the costs of construction, operation and maintenance of the telescope were to be shared equally between the two Governments, while observing time would be similarly shared between astronomers in Australia and the UK.

A Project Office to supervise the construction of the telescope was set up in January 1968 by the Joint Policy Committee. Some two to three years were required for the preparation of detailed design specifications and the letting of major contracts, awarded on an international basis to companies in Japan, Switzerland and the United States, as well as from Australia and the UK. Figuring of the mirrors was carried out by the British firm, Sir Howard Grubb Parsons and Company Limited.

The telescope mounting and the drive and control systems were manufactured by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation of Japan. The telescope building and dome, constructed by the Australian companies Leighton Constructions Limited and Evans-Deakin Industries Limited, were completed by the end of 1972 and the structural components of the telescope itself were assembled during 1973. The final cost of construction was $A15,932,250.

Following a detailed process of installation and commissioning of instrumentation, the AAT was inaugurated on 16 October 1974 by His Royal Highness, Prince Charles.

The primary mirror, which has a usable surface of diameter 3.89 metres, was first aluminised late in 1974 and scientific work commenced early in 1975. Regularly scheduled observations began on 28 June 1975.

In October 1974 the Board established temporary quarters in the grounds of the then CSIRO Division of Radiophysics (now CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science) at Epping, a suburb of Sydney, to provide technical and administrative support for the telescope. Subsequently, the Board decided to maintain this establishment, known since March 1976 as the Laboratory of the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO), as a complementary facility to the telescope on Siding Spring Mountain. The AAO Laboratory provided office, laboratory, library and computing facilities for scientific work, the development of instruments and software, administration and visiting astronomers.

The United Kingdom Schmidt Telescope, commissioned in 1973 and originally operated by the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, became part of the AAO in June 1988.

In the mid 2000s the UK government indicated its intent to withdraw from the bilateral agreement, and in mid-2010 the Australian Astronomical Observatory was established as a wholly Australian owned and operated facility. The AAT Board was succeeded by the AAO Advisory Committee. In 2012 the AAO moved its Sydney headquarters from the shared site with the CSIRO at Epping to its current location in North Ryde.

More information about the history of the AAT, the AAO and Siding Spring can be found in the following books:

More information on the AAO through the period of the transition in 2010:

An article on the founding and early history of the AAT by Fred Hoyle: