On a clear night you can see forever

Posted on Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Visitors to the new observatory at the Morgan Arboretum take a peek deep into space during the official opening on Oct. 23. / Photo: Morrie Portnoff, Nunavik Graphics.

By Neale McDevitt

Long one of Montreal’s most fertile living classrooms for anyone looking to study the natural world, the Morgan Arboretum has upped its game. And when we say upped, we mean way up.

With the opening of the new Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) observatory on its grounds on Tuesday, Oct. 23, the Arboretum officially entered the stargazing business. The observatory project, complete with a 14-inch robotic, research-grade telescope, is a joint initiative between the Royal Astronomy Society of Canada (RASC) – Montreal Centre, the Arboretum and McGill’s Faculties of Science and Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

“The Arboretum now takes in everything from molecules on one end to galaxies on the other end – we now offer a really complete picture,” said Jim Fyles, Chair of the Department of Natural Resource Sciences in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and Director of the Morgan Arboretum.

The observatory and telescope will be administered by RASC members and will be used for both research and educational purposes. Under the direction of RASC members, the public will have access to the telescope in a series of viewing opportunities throughout the year. Fyles also hopes that Arboretum employees, such as naturalist Chris Cloutier, will be trained to operate the telescope.

“It’s all about discovery, right?” Fyles said. “And from the Arboretum’s perspective that discovery ranges across the whole spectrum from researchers doing cutting-edge research on things that have never been found before; to undergraduate students who are discovering things that are consistent with what was there before; to high school and elementary school kids who are learning about things that aren’t discoveries to the world but are certainly discoveries to them; and to little kids who are just discovering that acorns come from trees. The observatory adds another level to that voyage of discovery.”

First-light ceremony

Last week’s opening of the observatory included the symbolic first-light ceremony in which moonlight is allowed to hit the telescope’s mirror for the first time. The $10,000 equatorially mounted telescope is equipped with an onboard computer-database of nearly 150,000 celestial objects. The large mirror is similar in design to the Hubble Space Telescope and, because of it’s resolution and light-collecting capabilities will grant stunning views of space, like the rings of Saturn and spiral arms of galaxies.

The telescope was the gift of Montreal native Dr. David Levy, one of the world’s most prolific comet discoverers. Levy was one the men who discovery the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that impacted Jupiter in 1994.

The partnership between RASC and the Arboretum was a match made – well, in the heavens, said Andrew Fazekas, RASC – Montreal Director of Communications, and one that has enabled RASC-Montreal to move its observatory from its previous McGill location just behind Molson Stadium, to a place much better suited to planetary observation.

“The old observatory was actually a converted WW II radar station,” said Fazekas, who discovered his passion for all things celestial as a four-year-old on his father’s knee, gazing heavenward through a simple department store telescope on the roof of the family’s Côte St-Luc apartment. “But over the years the downtown core has been built up tremendously and with that comes a significant amount of light pollution. That makes it tough on astronomers.”

That problem was only compounded with the installation of huge banks of floodlights at Molson Stadium just a few hundred feet from would-be stargazers.

Dark side of the Island

According to Fazekas, the Arboretum is one of the best local spots to set up a telescope. “This is a fantastic location – maybe the best on the Island of Montreal to do urban stargazing, because it’s so dark,” he said. “In fact, there’s a recent photo of the entire Island of Montreal on NASA’s website taken from the International Space Station. It was taken in the darkness of night and the whole island is lit up like a Christmas tree except for one spot – the Arboretum – that is just a huge black area. It’s perfect for us.”

While RASC will hold regular star events at the Arboretum, Fazekas says the dates on the calendar for people to circle are December 13-14. “The Geminid meteor shower is the best meteor shower of the year and we’re having a party at the Arboretum,” he said. “If you’re ready to bundle up and bring your hot chocolate to stay warm it’s a great light show – plus, people can always warm up in the Arboretum’s Conservation Centre which is just a few hundred feet away.”

For more information about RASC, including membership information and a complete schedule of events, go here.

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