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Observatories: digital portals to the sky

The pandemic and aging infrastructure have spurred major renovations at university observatories, making them more accessible to the public and to researchers around the globe.


There’s a sharper view of the sky than ever at York University. The two sticky, stubborn telescope domes that had sat atop York’s Allan I. Carswell Astronomical Observatory since the 1960s were finally replaced this past summer. It was no easy effort. Even after securing approval for the renovation and removing the old domes from the building by crane, staff spent a week assembling the two new domes, each one nearly seven metres in diameter, before hefting them into place.

The new equipment is fully mechanical and can be remotely controlled through a computer rather than manually adjusted – an upgrade that observatory director and York astrophysics professor Elaina Hyde says has opened the Toronto facility to a wider, web- based audience.

It was no easy investment, or a small one, but it allows researchers unprecedented freedom to do their work. The new domes are part of a larger renovation project partially funded through a $500,000 donation from the Carswell Family Foundation, which provides funding for education- and health-related charitable activities. York and its faculty of science matched the donation with alumni support, bringing the total funds spent to $1 million.

With this funding, the university started improvements to the observatory a few years before the domes were installed – most notably, in 2020, it added a one-metre telescope to its collection of 60-, 40- and 20-centimetre telescopes. However, the pandemic and its stay-at-home orders hastened the need to make the site accessible to those working off campus. Online outreach is now a central priority for the observatory. Some of these initiatives include a YouTube channel, which hosts livestreamed night-sky viewings and an astronomy series called TeleTube; an online radio show; games; online tours; and platforms to connect students, academics or members of the public working anywhere in the world directly with university personnel.

The upgrade at York is just one corner of growth in Canadian university-based astronomy. From coast to coast, university observatories are upgrading aging infrastructure to make them more resilient for remote work and to expand their reach beyond campus. The COVID-19 pandemic has ramped up renovations to astronomy observatories at a pace not seen since the 1960s. At that time, the surprise launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 kicked off the space race and inspired the United States and Canada to pour money into science, astronomy and aerospace projects. Many Canadian observatories date back to this era and now, at more than 60 years old, they’re ready for new life.

Stargazing on Campus

Several Canadian university campuses feature state-of-the-art astronomical observatories that regularly open their doors to the public. These facilities offer significant teaching and research opportunities for students and faculty members, but they are equally valuable as public outreach arms for the universities. <\captionsetup{strut=off}>

Grenfell Observatory

Memorial University, Corner Brook, N.L.
Located at Memorial University’s Grenfell campus, the observatory opened in a glass tower in the arts and science building in 2012. According to Memorial, it’s home to Newfoundland’s only professional telescope, which welcomes 1,000 visitors a year.

Earl L. Wonnacott Observatory

University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, P.E.I.
The metal dome of the observatory was hoisted into place and installed on the roof of Memorial Hall in January 1980. Some years later, in 2020, it was dedicated to the late Earl L. Wonnacott, who taught physics and astronomy for more than 50 years at the university and its predecessor, Prince of Wales College, and oversaw the acquisition of the observatory in the late 1970s.

Burke-Gaffney Observatory

Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, N.S.
Perched atop the university’s 22-storey Loyola Residence tower since 1972, the observatory is named in honour of M. W. Burke-Gaffney, the late founder of SMU’s astronomy department.

Gemini Observatory

Mount Allison University, Sackville, N.B.
The Mount Allison Gemini Observatory is a dualdome astronomical observatory housing two 280-millimetre Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes in the university’s Dunn building. All observatory operations are powered by solar energy – the facility isn’t even connected to the electrical grid.

Department of Physics and Astronomy Observatory

Université de Moncton, Moncton, N.B.
The francophone university first opened its observatory on the roof of the Taillon building in 1998. For 25 years, it’s welcomed researchers, students and members of the public under its 4.4-metre dome. A nearly identical observatory is slated to open on the university’s Shippigan campus in northeastern N.B. in 2023.

Mont Mégantic Observatory

Université de Montréal and Université Laval, Mont-Mégantic, Que.
Although the observatory isn’t situated on a university campus, Mont-Mégantic Observatory in Quebec’s Eastern Townships is jointly administered by Université de Montréal and Université Laval and is home to the institutions’ laboratory for experimental astrophysics. The observatory shares space with ASTROLab, a provincially hosted visitor’s centre, and together they welcome nearly 20,000 guests each year.

Astronomical Observatory

Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Que.
The astronomical observatory at Bishop’s University is tucked away on the roof of the Nicolls Building at the edge of campus. Despite its relatively small size, the facility has welcomed nearly 10,000 visitors over the course of its 17 years of operation.

Kessler Observatory

Carleton University, Ottawa, Ont. Located on top of Carleton University’s Herzberg building, the observatory is named after Dan Kessler, a former faculty member who helped establish the space in the 1980s. It houses three telescopes and runs a public viewing night once a month.

The Queen’s Observatory

Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.
The Queen’s Observatory was first established in 1855. Its latest iteration houses a 356-millimetre reflecting telescope in a dome on the roof of Ellis Hall. The observatory is staffed by graduate and undergraduate students in astronomy who help faculty members lead virtual tours for schools, present talks and games on the observatory’s YouTube channel and host a podcast called Fast Radio Bursts.

Gustav Bakos Observatory

University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ont.
Located on the roof of the physics building at the University of Waterloo, the Gustav Bakos Observatory is home to a 305-millimetre telescope. The observatory has been in operation since 1967 and is named in honour of the first astronomer to work at the institution.

Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory

Western University, London, Ont.
The Cronyn Observatory was designed by local architect O. Roy Moore and built by the Putherbough Company in 1940. The dome was fabricated by Perkin-Elmer Corporation in New York, shipped in pieces, and assembled on site. To celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2015, part of the observatory’s basement was restored as a period room complete with furnishings from the 1940s.

Allan I. Carswell Astronomical Observatory

York University, Toronto, Ont.
York University erected its observatory in 1969, 10 years after the institution was incorporated. In 2017, the observatory was renamed after Allan Carswell, a pioneer in laser research. Once a professor of physics at York, Dr. Carswell would eventually help lead NASA’s Phoenix Mars Mission.

Ewen Campus Observatory

University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Man. Since 2002, the University of Manitoba has been home to a four-metre AstroHaven clamshell dome on the roof of University College. Below the dome sits a donated 400-millimetre Meade LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. Stargazers and planet watchers also come to U of M for the Lockhart Planetarium, which has been undergoing renovations.

The Observatory

University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Sask. The campus observatory at the University of Saskatchewan was the third building erected on campus, constructed in two phases between 1928 and 1930 at a cost of $23,000. Public viewings happen on the first and third Saturday evening of every month. About 5,000 people visit the observatory each year.

Department of Physics Astronomical Observatory

University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alta. The University of Alberta’s observatory is open to the public for solar and night-sky viewings every Thursday. The facility is on the fifth floor of the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science on U of A’s main campus. In the building’s west atrium hangs a model of the planets as their location appeared on Sept. 23, 2008, the date of U of A’s 100th anniversary.

Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

University of Calgary, Priddis, Alta. About 30 kilometres southwest of the University of Calgary campus sits the institution’s Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. It started as a pair of trailers, a 410-millimetre telescope and a dome in 1972 and has since grown to include a new purpose-built facility with several high-powered telescopes. Recently, the facility partnered with members of local Indigenous communities to share traditional stories about the sky (“sky lore”) from the Siksika of the Blackfoot and the Ininewuk of the Cree through the observatory’s website and the university’s YouTube channel.

Trottier Observatory

Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C. Simon Fraser University’s $4.4-million Trottier Observatory opened to much fanfare in 2014. It serves as the faculty of science’s flagship facility and operates several outreach programs, including public “star parties” every Friday night and a loyalty card that entitles a family to a free telescope.

UVic Observatory

University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C. University of Victoria’s observatory hosts an open house every Wednesday night and leads free, one-hour tours for public schools. But the facility at the Bob Wright Centre, established in 2008, is actually the second astronomical observatory on campus. The Climenhaga Observatory, a teaching facility that has operated from the roof of the Elliott Building since the 1960s, is off-limits to the public but its dome, painted with a huge smiley face, is a familiar sight on campus.

When the pandemic shut down university campuses and their observatories throughout much of 2020 and 2021, technological renovations like those seen at York became all the more urgent. Fortunately, the transition was already well underway at several institutions and many were able to build off of these slow-but-steady improvements.

The Burke-Gaffney Observatory (BGO) at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax installed a new 0.6-metre telescope in 2013 – along with the required instrumentation, mount, automated dome rotation, cloud sensors and other necessities – thanks largely to a donation by real estate developer and philanthropist Ralph Medjuck (the telescope was even named after its benefactor). Two years later, in 2015, the BGO launched a new interface allowing the public to request astronomical images from the telescope through Twitter. Since then, the BGO has touted itself as the world’s first social media-controlled observatory.

“With our robotic interface and remotely controlled operations, we were really prepared for what happened [during the pandemic],” says Vincent Hénault-Brunet, BGO director and an assistant professor with SMU’s department of astronomy and physics. “Observations continued throughout the pandemic and students continued to use the BGO for class projects, sometimes sending observing requests to be executed later, sometimes joining a live, remote observing session,” Dr. Hénault-Brunet adds. Observatories have long served as public outreach arms for universities. With remote access to observatory equipment, programs and data on the rise, observatory outreach is finding new ground.

The team at the University of Calgary’s Rothney Astrophysical Observatory (RAO) is using recent equipment updates to lean hard into remote outreach opportunities. The RAO is home to two telescopes that are completely controllable over the internet: the Clark-Milone telescope, which was recently upgraded with a new digital camera, called a complementary metal oxide semiconductor; and the Baker-Nunn telescope, which is now connected to the international Skynet Robotic Telescope Network, based out of the University of North Carolina. Pre-pandemic, RAO estimated some 10,000 visitors a year to its programs. With these web-based tools in place, the observatory is working to build on that. Recently, they’ve focused on engagement with local Indigenous communities and public schools, including through workshops for Calgary science teachers, says RAO director Phil Langill.

Occasionally, some institutions, like the Université de Moncton, will opt to invest in smaller telescopes that allow for more location flexibility – advanced optical technologies and materials make today’s small telescopes much more powerful than those made six decades ago.

“We bought 12-inch [30.5-centimetre] telescopes that are mobile, that we can move,” says Viktor Khalack, a professor of physics and astronomy at U de Moncton. The institution’s program is focusing on the coming “solar maximum” – a peak of sunspot activity and solar flares that happens roughly every 11 years on the sun – and portable equipment will be key to keeping track of it, he says. The next peak is forecasted to happen between November 2024 and March 2026, according to the U.S. Solar Cycle Prediction Panel. Already the sun is showing off its power with flares, ejections of charged particles and other activities – and the public loves the chance to look at it safely through telescopes, Dr. Khalack explains.

“You can see nice chains [of sunspots] and you can try to measure solar rotations as well,” he notes, adding that these moments of engagement are inspiring for kids and for those who may be considering astronomy studies in the future.

At the time of publication, Canadian universities have gone back to inperson learning with few restrictions. Still, the past few years have made it clear that resilience and flexibility must be built into university observing programs and facilities. This need will only grow in the coming decades as researchers and community members face significant barriers to accessing physical observatories, including the cost and environmental impact of travelling to these facilities, but also the more mundane challenges like illness and caregiving responsibilities.

Despite these challenges, staff at university observatories say they feel better prepared to respond to what may come with remote observing programs in place. But keeping these programs will take ongoing financial support and investment from a variety of sources.

“It’s all related to funding,” Dr. Khalack says, including federal government funding, which, he adds, would “be most appreciated.”

“Telescope and detector upgrades are always on the go,” adds Dr. Langill at U of Calgary. The associate professor of astrophysics and astronomy notes that staying on top of cutting-edge research must happen even in years when dollars aren’t flowing easily to the university. The money spent now will have an impact that lasts for decades.

Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is an Ottawa-based space journalist, author and communications instructor.
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