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monday, july 11, 2011

Eye on the Sky The Gateway  tours the new home of the University of Alberta Observatory atop CCIS Words by Justin Bell Photos by Dan McKechnie


utting out of the southwest corner of the new Canadian Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies are three massive silos, protruding from the building like grain elevators on the fifth floor. Housed within the domes are three telescopes, which serve as the university’s window into the cosmos. After bouncing around campus and the surrounding community for the past 70 years, the University of Alberta Observatory has finally found a permanent home on top of the newest campus building. The three telescopes, which use curved mirrors to bounce light from the night sky and focus it into the eyepiece, are used less for scientific research and more for community outreach and learning. “We definitely want to have everything in one place. The three telescopes and the three domes was because it made sense that these were three things that needed to be permanently set up,” said Sharon Morsink, the defacto director of the observatory. While Morsink doesn’t hold the official title of director, the fact that she’s been around the observatory since 2000 and her seniority on campus has allowed her to become the director “by osmosis.” Her expertise and position meant she got to

help decide the look of the new facility, which she estimates added an extra $100,000 to the price tag of the building. That includes the three domes, all of the electrical systems required for each, a large outdoor observation area for the smaller telescopes the observatory uses, as well as a new indoor classroom area. The classroom space will allow people like Ross Lockwood, a physics graduate student who works as a teaching assistant at the observatory, to do more when it comes to public outreach and teaching. “I guess fundamentally, everyone seeks a purpose,” Lockwood said. “For a physicist, understanding the universe is the purpose. I think, for the most part we understand things on the macro scale. We know how cars and engines work, but we don’t know how things on the quantum level work or how [things on] the astronomical level work.” Lockwood’s grad work deals with silicone nanotubes in condensed nanophysics and how it relates to imaging. So between his grad studies and his work at the observatory, he’s bridging the two strands of the physics world. And Lockwood is excited to put his teaching experience to use at the new outreach facility at the observatory. The new indoor facilities come equipped with

projectors and seating for presentations when the weather clouds over and the stars aren’t visible. As well, the frigid temperatures of Alberta’s winters has been known to scare away potential stargazers, and the warm indoors can take anywhere between 50 and 100 interested amateur astronomers when the temperatures begin to drop. The final new addition to the observatory is a 14-inch Celestron telescope, a donation by former Edmonton Oiler owner Peter Pocklington back in the ‘80s. He purchased it to watch the passing of comet Halley in 1986, and then it sat in his home until his wife convinced him to donate it to the observatory. A special filter will be added to it to view the sun. The University of Alberta has a long history of telescopes and observatories. The first observatory on campus opened in 1943 on the current site of the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium with the donation of a 12-inch telescope. That was eventually demolished to make way for the Jubilee Auditorium, and there was no place to house the telescope until a new home was built just outside Devon, near the Devonian Botanical Gardens, which opened in 1967. To bring things closer to North Campus, the 12-inch telescope was later moved on top of the

Physics Building, while a new 20-inch model, which had been built on campus by university staff, was moved out to Devon. With the demolition of the Physics Building in 2006 to make way for the construction of CCIS, the 12-inch telescope was put into storage for two years before finding a new home atop the Fine Arts Building in 2008. It would take on the name of FABservatory for the remainder of its temporary visit. That observatory location was shut down last spring, and the telescopes were moved to CCIS in May. While none of the current telescopes are high enough quality to do in-depth scientific research — the last student to use the 20-inch model for a doctorate was in 2004 — they are the perfect size for the undergraduate labs that are coming through, and the community outreach that is planned. “There’s this vast array of knowledge you can share with everybody by showing what Jupiter looks like, or Saturn,” Lockwood said. Though the observatory will be open over the summer for various summer camps, regular Thursday night observing times for the public will resume again in September after the grand opening of CCIS.

Eye on the Sky  

The Gateway takes a look at the new home of the University of Alberta's observatory atop the recently completed CCIS building.

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