Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Times Colonist: We should reopen observatory to the public

Observatory under construction, circa 1916.
Courtesy of BC Archives, Royal BC Museum. 
Times Colonist, Comment Page, A11, by Lana Popham, 29 Oct 2013

Federal budget cuts closed the Saanich Observatory to the public last summer; public effort can ensure it is reopened.
There may be no better place in Canada to look at the stars than right here in Saanich. That is why, 100 years ago, Little Saanich Mountain was chosen as the site for what became the most powerful telescope in the world.
Construction of the observatory began in 1914 under the leadership of Canada’s top astronomer of the day, John Stanley Plaskett. Two years later, the site was ready for the telescope’s 9.5-tonne polar axis. It took 12 draft horses a day and a half to cart it to the top. The final piece needed was an enormous Belgian-cast glass mirror that was carefully turned on its side and rolled like a dime into the Observatory. There it was silvered and mounted in place and the observatory captured its first images on May 6, 1918.

The observatory is a beautiful icon of science and it should surprise no one that it is a National Historic Site. But what does surprise many is that this old telescope is still used today for cutting-edge scientific work. A state-of-the-art digital back-end is now strapped to its enormous mirrored eye, making it 10,000 times more sensitive than when first built.
Astronomers from around the world use the telescope. Beside the observatory is the Herzberg Institute, a sprawling complex run by the National Research Council. It is the centre of astronomy in Canada with 150 employees on site and an annual budget of about $30 million. Much of this money is spent locally, making a significant contribution to our local economy.

One of the main activities undertaken at NRC Herzberg is the development of technology. For example, sophisticated hardware — made up of components measured in micrometres — is fabricated and used in astronomical equipment around the world and in outer space. Herzberg also houses an enormous data centre. It is a key global hub of astronomical knowledge, sending out terabytes of data to researchers around the world.
Over the past decade, the federal government funded excellent public-outreach efforts at the observatory. In 2001, it built an interpretive centre, the Centre of the Universe, and since then has invested about $250,000 a year in public outreach.
That investment led to many activities, including public Saturday night star viewings, sci-fi movies projected on the side of the observatory, regular busloads of people on heritage and tourist visits, intensive youth summer camps and tens of thousands of public visits and school class trips.
This last point is, in my view, the greatest value to the community. Our children benefit enormously from witnessing high-level science in action and learning about the universe from top NRC staff and scientists. Many young people have been inspired to pursue the sciences from their experiences at the Saanich Observatory.
All of this outreach came to a crashing halt last summer with an announcement by the federal government that, for the first time in its history, there would be no public access to the Saanich Observatory. You can still climb the hill at certain times, but at the top you will find the Centre of the Universe closed and the historic observatory itself is off-limits to the public. The change was described by the government as a cost-saving measure, even though the expense was a minuscule 0.02 per cent of the $950-million NRC budget.
But this story is not over!
The abrupt closure had an unintended consequence: It sparked thousands of people to learn about what they were losing and they soon came together to push for a better outcome. Media coverage of the impending closure led almost 1,000 people to try to visit on the final public night — and almost every one of them signed a petition calling for funding of public access to be restored.
I have organized a meeting in the observatory on Nov. 23 to help us move in that direction. Key stakeholders — including NRC staff, public educators, heritage experts, University of Victoria professors, local business people and other community leaders — will come together for the first time. Together, we can convert the tremendous passion in the community for the observatory into a plan to reopen it to the public.
When the Plaskett telescope took its first pictures 100 years ago, astronomers thought there was just one galaxy, our Milky Way. Today we believe there are at least 100 billion galaxies out there, each with 300 billion stars! The Saanich Observatory is our window onto the universe. We must work together to ensure public access is restored.
Visit www.saanichobservatory.ca for more information or to show your support.