Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chris Gainor reviews the Summer of 2014 at the Saanich Observatory

Chris Gainor
Check out this great blog post from the indefatigable Chris Gainor. Chris is a well-known writer and historian specializing in the history of space exploration and aeronautics. He is the Second Vice President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society. He has authored four books and has a Ph.D. in the history of technology.

A great summer at the Centre of the Universe

The first summer of public outreach at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory since last year's closure of the Centre of the Universe educational centre has gone in the books as a major success.

Large crowds came out for Saturday night public observing at the DAO, and space camps held for young students were also well supported. Having said that, this year's public outreach was not trouble free, and a lot of work needs to be done in the coming months to ensure that public outreach continues on a more permanent basis.

Last summer, the National Research Council of Canada, which runs the DAO, announced that the Centre and its public outreach work would close, although the DAO's research work would continue as it has for nearly 100 years. The Centre closed at the end of that summer.

By then, the public in Greater Victoria had shown its concern about the NRC's action by signing petitions supporting the Centre, and large crowds came out for the Centre's final public events.

In November, a meeting facilitated by Saanich South MLA Lana Popham brought people from the community and concerned groups together to begin the job of reconstituting public outreach at the DAO. The effort won support from the NRC, and for 2014, the Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada agreed to hold public observing nights at the DAO similar to what it had done before the Centre opened in 2001. 

The University of Victoria's Science Venture program agreed to hold space camps for children in Grades 3 to 8 at the Centre of the Universe building this summer. Science Venture is reported to be happy with the response to their space camps.

This year's public observing at the DAO began on May 3, Astronomy Day. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate, but more than 200 people came to the DAO anyway to tour the historic Plaskett Telescope. The story was similar when summer Saturday observing sessions resumed on July 5. After that, the weather was nearly perfect for most of the next six public observing sessions over the summer, with crowds usually exceeding 400 people for each session.

Last Saturday, so many people turned up that traffic jams formed on West Saanich Road, and many people were turned back. Capacity for both people and cars at the observatory is limited, and this is a problem that will have to be addressed for next year.

For each public observing night, RASC volunteers showed visitors planets, stars and other celestial objects through their own telescopes, while other volunteers conducted tours of the Plaskett Telescope, which in four years will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its opening. I helped out inside the Plaskett and had the privilege of working alongside telescope operator Dave Balam, who is one of the world's top experts on asteroids.

Visitors to the first observing night in August got to meet CBC Quirks and Quarks host Bob McDonald, who received a certificate from Balam stating that an asteroid has been named after him.  Lana Popham and her friends arranged for popcorn and hot chocolate for visitors to the DAO for last Saturday's summer finale.

For observing nights next year and in the future, the RASC is thinking about ways to improve programming, perhaps with lectures about astronomy.

The next step is to create a non-profit entity to operate the Centre of the Universe and outreach programs at the DAO. Don Moffatt, who spearheaded last year's petition to save the Centre, has set up a Friends of the DAO - Dominion Astrophysical Observatory group on Facebook, and everyone who is interested in keeping public outreach alive at the DAO is urged join this group.

Before public activities return to the DAO next year, those of us involved in this year's successes hope to have news about the new entity and new public outreach activities on Observatory Hill. While there are many ideas being discussed for future years, we must keep in mind that the observing sessions were run by volunteers, and volunteer time is not an unlimited resource, and funds for new programs are scarce.

Everyone mentioned above deserves thanks for all the hard work they did to make this summer's observing possible. I would like to give a special thanks to  the NRC and its staff at the observatory for all their help.

This year, the RASC Victoria Centre is celebrating its 100th anniversary. In June the Victoria Centre held a hugely successful General Assembly for RASC members from across Canada, something that also involved a major volunteer effort. Once that was over, Victoria Centre members pulled off this summer's observing nights. Kudos to all the RASC volunteers for creating a memorable centennial celebration!

Chris Gainor.