Perched high above the city, in the hilly right-bank suburb of Floirac, is the Observatory of Bordeaux, one of the most significant scie...

All change in 2016 for the Observatory of Bordeaux on the Floirac hilltops


Perched high above the city, in the hilly right-bank suburb of Floirac, is the Observatory of Bordeaux, one of the most significant scientific sites in the area, and one for which a new chapter will open later in 2016.

The observatory was founded in 1878 by the Bordeaux-born astronomer Georges Rayet (whose name was to be given to his joint discovery, so-called Wolf-Rayet stars) and has, over the years, become a renowned establishment initially excelling in the fields of celestial mechanics (calculation of the motion and trajectory of celestial objects) and astrometry (measurement of the positions and movements of celestial objects). From the 1970s onwards, the observatory’s focus extended to include studies in radio waves and research into the Earth’s atmosphere.

At the time of writing the observatory is officially the home of Bordeaux University’s 70-strong Astrophysics Laboratory (LAB, Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Bordeaux), a unit which is jointly run by the University’s Observatoire Aquitain des Sciences de l’Univers (OASU) and France’s national centre for scientific research (CNRS). Pivotal modern-day achievements include contributions to software applications for Nasa’s Curiosity programme and a role on Gaia, the European Space Agency’s mission to chart a three-dimensional map of our Galaxy. Over the past few days, there has been media coverage of how Floirac researchers, using telescopes based in Chile, observed a form of low-temperature dust in gas circles surrounding a young star. This breakthrough discovery may help understand how planetary systems form, no less.
The observatory as it looked in 1906 (postcard courtesy of Adam Roberts over at Invisible Paris) and the same view today during a recent open day. Domes, from left to right: Grand-Equatorial, Table-Equatoriale, Equatorial-Photographique (partially obscured). The building to the right is known as bâtiment Rayet.
Although these days the unit’s team have access to the kind of computer wizardry we all take for granted, the observatory boasts an impressive collection of old-school astronomy, meteorology and timekeeping equipment, including no less than 500 instruments of various shapes and sizes ranging from clocks and barometers to chronographs, spectrographs and cameras. The observatory archives store more than 4,300 astronomy photographs that date back to 1892, and fifty or so glass plate negatives. As well as being of immense historical value, documents of the like are still used for research purposes to determine the movement of stars over the course of time.
The Grand-Equatorial dome (top) and the main laboratory building, the Würtzberg radiotelescope, and a rather tall antenna.
The observatory’s most visible heritage is its buildings (19 in all) which, since 2009, have been listed as historic monuments. Some, such as Bâtiments Rayet, Bouguer and Rayet provide a working environment for the researchers. Others are named in reference to the instruments which they house: le Grand-Equatorial, le Petit-Equatorial, la Table-Equatoriale. Finally, one structure stands apart from all others: the impressive Würtzberg radiotelescope, installed here in 1962 after a previous life as a radar used by Nazi forces on the northern coast of France (after the war it was recovered by French forces and used first in Marcoussis then Meudon, both in the suburbs of Paris).

France's property now: the Würtzberg radiotelescope.
A very well-stocked library includes many publications which were obtained as far back as the 19th century, such as works by Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Huygens, Newton and others. One of the observatory’s proudest possessions is a full, original copy of France's first encyclopedia, Diderot and d’Alembert’s encyclopédie, produced between 1751 and 1772.

The big changes which are afoot are that, come September 2016, the Astrophysics Laboratory will have relocated to more modern, purpose-designed facilities on university campus land in Talence. The Floirac premises are therefore set to be entirely vacated, although there is every chance the larger telescopes and viewing equipment will remain. 

Some of the observatory's vintage instruments. Top left: petite lunette équatoriale (1882); bottom left: grande lunette équatoriale (1882), right-hand pictures: équatorial photographique (1892).
The most likely scenario is that the observatory buildings and 30 acres (112 hectares) of land, which are State property, will be taken over by Aerocampus Aquitaine, the aeronautical maintenance training institute based in nearby Latresne. The Floirac site would therefore be converted into what could be known as “L’Etoile by Aerocampus” or “Data Space Campus”, a training facility for the aerospace sector with a particular focus on digital applications developed by the space industry. The site would also be used as a venue for corporate events and a cultural centre putting on events for the general public. Other projects which appear to be on the cards include the creation of a planetarium, something which does not currently exist in Bordeaux. The concept would involve offering visitors a multimedia journey through space and time, with the added benefit of also being able to view vintage astronomy equipment at close quarters.

As so often at Invisible Bordeaux, the case continues, and perhaps the next time I return the place will look and feel very, very different…

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