Monday, August 26, 2013

Dominion Astrophysical Observatory

The 1.83-metre Plaskett Telescope of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.

"Federal budget cuts to close renowned astronomy centre"

Stephen Hume

August 23rd, 2013

Vancouver Sun Columnist

There are people, as Oscar Wilde famously said, who know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

So, with that in mind, I made my way to the top of Little Saanich Mountain last weekend to bid a bittersweet farewell to The Centre of the Universe, due to close its doors at the end of August, one of the least deserving victims of Ottawa’s spending cuts.

The Centre of the Universe is the low-budget but high-yield — at least in public goodwill for the sciences — interpretive centre that was launched just over a decade ago for the National Research Council at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and the Hertzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Canada’s leading centre for astronomical research.

The centre runs summer astronomy camps, provides engaging instructional support for all grade levels up to Grade 12 physics, hosts public lectures, provides internships for students, and is deeply engaged with the 145-year-old Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the association of science amateurs that is recognized for many important contributions to observational research and education.

I wrote about the centre when it opened in 2001. I even took my 11-year-old daughter up for one of the centre’s “Star Parties,” a sleepover for kids that introduced them to the Perseids meteor shower with tours, sky-watching, a late-night movie, snacks and breakfast, all for $35.

She had a great evening and so did I, watching the immense Plaskett Telescope, once the world’s biggest, rotate to give us brief looks at deep space objects too dim to see, all enhanced into spectacular pictures by the high-tech digital imaging.

Inside, interactive displays let kids pick up a meteorite, experiment with the refraction of light, play with the spectrum and the Doppler Effect, and correct the curve of a telescope lens to eliminate star twinkle, learning hands-on how these tools are used to study quasars, pulsars, black holes and the universe itself.

Other displays highlight the important contributions by Canadian astronomers, from John Plaskett’s discovery — right here in B.C. more than 70 years ago — of the structure of our galaxy to the contemporary work of John Kavelaars. He has an asteroid named after him, is responsible for the discovery of more than a dozen of Saturn’s moons, and is tracking objects in the outer solar system.

The place was packed last weekend for a lecture by Kavelaars on recent discoveries that give new insights into the formation of the solar system and what’s going on out there in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. Those are clouds of orbiting debris from the solar system’s birth that still send us occasional comets, fireballs and the daily shower of 200 tonnes of ice and dust upon our planet.

Since 1980, the Plaskett Telescope has been a key tool for Spaceguard, an international team of scientists identifying and calculating orbits for more than a thousand asteroids larger than two football fields in diameter.

If one of these were to hit our corner of the earth — and one does strike the planet every 10,000 years or so — it would blast millions of tonnes of molten rock out of a crater deeper than a 500-storey building, drop white-hot ash back over a 150-km radius, ignite all the forests on the coast, and send a 100-metre-high tsunami across the Pacific and more than 20 kilometres inland in low-lying areas.

Already, scientists are at work studying what might be done to deflect such an object from striking Earth, so this kind of research is both practical and of public interest.

Killing such valuable public outreach at such a high-profile science facility seems a classic example of what my mother would call penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking.

Or we could put it another way:

The cost savings to the federal government by closing the Centre of the Universe public outreach and educational facility will be about $250,000 a year. Three high-profile Harper government senators are currently being investigated for about $260,000 in allegedly improper expense claims. And the cost for keeping the centre open for 18 months is about the same as for one full-day’s use of Ottawa’s VIP aircraft.

The federal minister responsible for the National Research Council is our own James Moore, B.C.’s lead minister in the Harper cabinet.

’Nuff said.

From Canada Under the Stars...

"The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory"

The first Canadian observatory of international calibre, it once housed the largest telescope in the world.

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory was inaugurated in 1918 at Saanich near Victoria, British Columbia. Its creation was motivated by the growing need of Canadian astronomers to have access to a large world-class telescope. The observatory immediately achieved international status by housing a 1.83-metre telescope that was the largest operating telescope in the world, although it only held this title for a few months.

The installation of the telescope was largely the work of celebrated Canadian astronomer John Stanley Plaskett, and the instrument was baptized the “Plaskett Telescope” in his honour. It measured 15 metres long and its mobile parts weighed 42 tonnes.

Plaskett became the first Director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and helped it establish an international research reputation very early on. In 1922, for example, he discovered a binary star and the larger of the two still holds the record as the most massive known binary star. This celestial body bears the name of “Plaskett’s Star” in his honour.

During subsequent years, Plaskett established the radial velocities of several stars (that is, the speed at which the stars are moving away or toward the observer) and demonstrated that our galaxy, the Milky Way, is rotating. He was also the first to measure the size, mass and rotational The 1.83-metre Plaskett Telescope of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.speed of the Milky Way. He also established that the Sun is located at 2/3 the distance from the centre of our galaxy to its edge, and that our solar system takes approximately 22 million years to complete one galaxial rotation.

In 1940, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory was the site of two other major discoveries. Andrew McKellar, one of the observatory’s astronomers, became the first researcher to detect the presence of matter in interstellar space when he identified the spectral bands for the organic compounds cyanogen (“CN”) and methyne (“CH”). One year later, in 1941, he determined the temperature of the cyanogen molecules and deduced that the interstellar environment in which they are found is very cold, approximately -270 °C. It was the first direct measurement of the temperature of the Universe.

In 1962, the observatory acquired a second telescope measuring 1.22 metres in diameter. Equipped with only a spectroscope, it was mainly used to study binary stars.

In 1970, the responsibility of the observatory was conferred to the National Research Council of Canada.

In 1981, the observatory received a third telescope measuring 40 centimetres across. It was primarily used for scientific research, notably the study of gas clouds in our galaxy (the Milky Way), and to test instruments destined for large telescopes. Today it is used to show the sky to the general public.

In 1995, the observatory became the headquarters for the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, which operates several telescopes (optical and radio) in Canada and shares many others with various countries elsewhere in the world, including the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the Gemini telescopes.

In 2001, the observatory inaugurated an interpretation centre open to the general public all year long and affectionately named “The Centre of the Universe”. It includes a small planetarium and offers interactive displays, multimedia presentations and special events designed to introduce people from all walks of life to the world of astronomy.

Over the years, new instruments were added and many technical improvements were made to the Plaskett Telescope, the observatory’s main telescope. Today, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory is the responsibility of the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics.

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