U of C observatory hosts open house

By Louie Villanueva

On May 25, the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory hosted its fourth open house of the year. The RAO is owned and operated by the University of Calgary’s department of physics and astronomy. It offers educational programming together with outreach events geared towards those interested in astronomy. The observatory is located south west of Calgary, just outside the town of Priddis. 

“Initially the observatory was strictly for teaching and research,” said RAO director Phil Langill.

When it was founded in 1972, the RAO was not open to the public and has only offered educational programming for the last seven years. After a donation of the land from the Rothney Farm and the Ann & Sandy Cross Conservation Area, the observatory has grown into one of the most technologically-advanced university-run observatories in Canada.

“We’ve got one of the largest telescopes in the country, infrared detectors, radio telescopes, spectrographs, photometers, cameras and a lot of really fantastic teaching equipment here,” said Langill. “Every year, we graduate a handful of astrophysics students and many have gone on to do some really cool stuff at observatories around the world.” 

At the recent open house event, RAO volunteer and Royal Astronomical Society of Canada member Roland Dechesme introduced the attendees to the spring sky ­­— the visible stellar objects present at night.

“I started off with star families or star clusters that are prominent this time of year,” said Dechesme.

The introductory presentation was held in the Interpretive Centre, adjacent to the main observatory building. It included a presentation featuring 3D animations and diagrams by observatory associates. A question and answer period followed. 

Those in attendance included second-year German studies student David Clark, a frequent visitor of the observatory.

“I came to a previous open house last winter and really liked it. This is my fourth time here,” said Clark.

Fifty people came out to the event. They explored the observatory grounds during the open house which included peeking through several telescopes with the aid and commentary of observatory volunteers. A second presentation by assistant professor of physics and astronomy Christopher Cully concentrated on his work regarding the Earth’s radiation belts. 

“This is what I’ve been working on for about the last eight years. I’ve also been working on building spacecraft and building instruments for spacecraft for exploring the radiation belts,” said Cully.

After the two presentations, the sun had set and the crowd was greeted by a relatively clear sky, highlighting the multicoloured northern lights together with a spectacular moonrise.

The RAO will host the next open house on June 22. During this event, Langill will discuss solar research appropriate for the nearby summer solstice. 

Along with open house events, drop in observing nights are regularly scheduled and include a special science-fiction night in October, consisting of readings, trivia, music and a costume contest.

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