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Rebuilding the Great Melbourne Telescope has universal appeal

Final frontier: Jim Pollock of the Astronomical Society of Victoria has his heart set on restoring the Great Melbourne Telescope.

Final frontier: Jim Pollock of the Astronomical Society of Victoria has his heart set on restoring the Great Melbourne Telescope.

''I think of it as a nine-tonne Meccano set,'' says Jim Pollock of the vast and weather-beaten collection of pieces that once comprised the biggest steerable reflective telescope in the world.

It was called the Great Melbourne Telescope and, thanks to a $70,000 grant, the grand project of the Astronomical Society of Victoria - to restore this ancient window to the heavens - is going full speed ahead into 2014.

''We had been running on the smell of an oily rag before this,'' says Pollock. ''We have 85 per cent of the parts - this grant from the Copland Foundation has allowed us to make the parts we don't have. And to replace some of the parts we do have - there is a large metal disc that was at the centre of the telescope that is broken into five pieces.''

Even so, Pollock says more funds are needed and it will be another three years before the telescope is installed in its original building at the Melbourne Observatory opposite the Shrine. ''We will have it in full working order, so people can look at it during the day and through it at night. We want to inspire young people in technology and science, not just astronomy.''

A crucial ingredient will be a new 48-inch (122-centimetre) mirror. ''There was a beautiful mirror going free to a good home in California recently, but the red tape beat us. It had been used in a spy telescope during the Cold War to see what the Russians were putting up.''

The Great Melbourne Telescope held its world's-biggest ranking for 40 years but was overtaken by telescopes that incorporated photography. Melbourne's world wonder went into mothballs at the end of the First World War but two sizeable replacements are still on the observatory site under those familiar half-dome roofs.

The observatory marked its 150th anniversary in 2013, recalling an era when the only way that colonial Melburnians could check their timepieces was through a telescope trained on the heavens. ''Our first observatory was at Williamstown,'' says Pollock. ''It was near the bluestone tower where the time ball would be dropped to signal captains of ships out on the bay.'' It was not just the time - which was calculated by the movement of the stars - the readings enabled ships to set their course back to the northern hemisphere. In 1863 the observatory was moved to its present site and the time signal was sent to the time-ball tower by telegraph. ''It was the first telegraph in the southern hemisphere,'' says Pollock. ''Melbourne back then was a very rich city.''

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