The Armagh Observatory (see http://star.arm.ac.uk/) is the oldest scientific institution in Northern Ireland, founded by Archbishop Richard Robinson in 1790 as part of his dream to see the creation of a university in the City of Armagh. It stands close to the centre of the City of Armagh together with the Armagh Planetarium in approximately 14 acres of attractive, landscaped grounds known as the Armagh Astropark. The Astropark, which is managed by the Observatory, includes two sundials and scale models of the solar system and the Universe, and features a number of outdoor exhibits and interpretation panels (see http://star.arm.ac.uk/astropark/). A new public outreach facility, the Human Orrery (see http://star.arm.ac.uk/orrery/), has recently been opened in the Observatory grounds to the south-east of the main building of the modern Observatory.
The principal function of the Armagh Observatory, which is a third-level institution funded by the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), is to undertake original research of a world-class academic standard that broadens and expands our understanding of astronomy and related sciences. Current key programmes focus on Stellar Astrophysics, the Sun, Solar System astronomy, and Solar System - Earth relationships including the Sun's influence on climate and the impact of interplanetary dust, comets and asteroids on the Earth. The Observatory also maintains a unique 210-year long meteorological record and data-bank (http://climate.arm.ac.uk/), the longest in the UK and Ireland from a single site, and plays a key role together with the Armagh Planetarium in promoting the public understanding of astronomy and related sciences.
Senior research staff at the Observatory are employed as Research Astronomers on a scale equivalent to the NICS Grade 7, which is roughly equivalent to the level of a university senior lecturer, reader or professor. Postgraduate students are registered at various UK and other European universities, but they are usually registered at the Queen's University of Belfast (QUB), which has recognized the Observatory as an approved institution for the supervision of PhD and MPhil. students. There is currently a fluctuating population of around 20 research staff, including students, which is supported by a pool of 2 technical (computer-related) staff, 1 librarian, 1 group secretary, 1 finance officer, and a senior administrator shared (50%) with the Armagh Planetarium. The 14 acres of landscaped grounds and the Armagh Astropark are maintained by a grounds/meteorological support officer, who is also responsible for taking the daily meteorological readings, and an assistant groundsman.
Research interests of Observatory staff currently focus on (i) Stellar and Galactic Astrophysics (including star formation, astrophysical jets, cool stars, hot stars, helium stars), (ii) the Sun (the dynamic solar atmosphere, chromosphere and corona), (iii) Solar System Astronomy (including celestial mechanics, planetary science, and the dynamical evolution and interrelationships of comets, asteroids, meteoroids and interplanetary dust), and (iv) Solar System - Terrestrial Relationships (including solar variability, climate, accretion of interplanetary dust and NEOs). In addition, Observatory staff participate in an active programme of education and public outreach via lectures, popular astronomy articles and interviews with the press, radio and television. Further details concerning the research interests of the Observatory staff may be obtained from the Observatory web-site at: http://star.arm.ac.uk/.
The Armagh Observatory participates in the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), held in 1992, 1996, and 2001. This gives external partners, such as UK charities and the research councils, information upon which to base their funding allocations. The RAE also provides a measure by which the Observatory can gauge its performance against corresponding groups in university departments. Staff at the Observatory achieved a Grade 4 in the Physics Unit of Assessment in each of the 1992, 1996, and 2001 RAEs, corresponding to ``Quality that equates to attainable levels of national excellence in virtually all of the research activity submitted, showing some evidence of international excellence.'' The census date for the next RAE, called ``RAE2008'', is 31 October 2007.
In addition to this primary research role, the Observatory has an important responsibility to maintain and preserve the fabric of the historic buildings, the library, historic books and archives, and the collection of scientific instruments and other artefacts built up over 215 years of continuous astronomical activity in Armagh. The main historic buildings of the Observatory have unique architectural features and together house one of the most valuable scientific collections, including books, instruments and archives, in Northern Ireland.
The scientific and architectural heritage provided by astronomy at Armagh is a highly significant asset for the region, and the entire collection of artefacts, scientific instruments and historic telescopes spans virtually every aspect of modern astronomy. In many cases, the underlying motivation and reasons for the developments of astronomy at a particular time can be explained with reference to discoveries at Armagh, or to artefacts and other items held within the Library and Archives. This gives astronomers at Armagh a unique opportunity to explain the development of their subject over more than two hundred years and the context in which modern research is carried out.
In summary, the Armagh Observatory is a modern research institute with a rich heritage. It provides a high-quality research environment and a range of opportunities to explain the reasons for mankind's long fascination with the celestial sphere, extending from roots more than five thousand years ago to the most recent results of the space age. The Observatory's location, conveniently close to the centre of Armagh, means that it is well placed to contribute to a greater understanding of the role of scholarship and research in the development of the City of Armagh and the wider region. It provides opportunities in education and lifelong learning for people of all ages and from all backgrounds, and has an important role to play in explaining and expanding Northern Ireland's scientific and built heritage for the benefit of future generations.