THE secrets of the universe are within reach of Bolton stargazers now that a new observatory has been officially opened.

A state-of-the-art observatory has been built in the heart of the town thanks to the hard work of staff, pupils and friends at Sharples School.

The observatory in the grounds of the school in Hill Cot Road was opened on Monday by BBC astronomer Mark Thompson.

The Sharples Observatory Project has been a dream of the school since it gained its specialist science college status in 2004. The project has been led by science teacher and deputy headteacher Mukesh Singadia who retired last summer after 33 years at Sharples and in whose honour the facility has been named.

He said: "For the school to honour a member of staff in such a way is very humbling. It is a state-of-the-art facility, there is not one like this in Bolton.

"It works a bit like Star Trek when the captain looks out of the window at the stars and decides where they go next, well here the pupils can just click an object on the screen and see it in high definition.

"You can look into deep space, into other galaxies and millions of miles.

"Hopefully this facility will inspire pupils who want to study astronomy to look to the future and we will see some great scientists come from this."

The facility includes a powerful 11-inch telescope which can capture a 360 degree view of sky while housed in a rotating dome.

Unlike astronomers of old, the telescope uses a high definition camera to capture multiple shots of whatever object or phenomena the pupils chose to focus on.

It feeds back to a computer and screens to display findings, and Sharples will run a live feed from the telescope online.

The location in the school grounds was chosen due to lack of light pollution and has been used in the past to study the stars using smaller telescopes.

The project followed the launch of the school's first GCSE astronomy after-school course and has cost £30,000 to complete with all money raised through school fundraising and by supporters of the project.

Now completed, the observatory will not only be used by Sharples pupils, but will be available for use by other schools and the community.

Headteacher Rachel Quesnel explained: "We want to share this with the local community and work closely with primary and secondary schools and are happy for them to use this resource. It is here for the whole community to enjoy.

"We are a specialist science college, the only one in Bolton, and we are standing by our duty to children and the community by opening this wonderful observatory."

The project has been supported from the beginning by the Bolton Astronomical Society and the Bolton-le-Moor Rotary Club, with member Roy Gibbins taking on the role of project manager.

At the launch, Mr Thompson praised the school's unique facilities. He said: "When I was at school we never used to have an observatory, I used to have to travel to one, but to have one on-site at a school will hopefully inspire people to get out and see what's out there. I think it's brilliant.

"This will allow the children to do what astronomers are doing now, they don't look through the telescope any more, but use pictures and use computer equipment like there is here.

"I hope people will come here to use this facility, which might inspire future generations of astronomers."