'Everybody likes astronomy': Looking back at 50 years of Calgary's Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory west of Calgary is celebrating 50 years in operation.

The facility, owned and operated by the faculty of science at the University of Calgary, first opened on Jan. 7, 1972.

"It doesn't seem like 50 years. Not at all," said Dr. Alan Clark, professor emeritus in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The Rothney observatory came to life after Clark was tasked with locating a place for students from the newly established department to observe the night sky.

"We were very lucky. We found a company in Britain to build us our (first) 16-inch telescope.  That venerable old instrument that is now remotely controllable from anywhere in the world," said Clark.

"Then we were very, very lucky indeed that when asked, Mr. Sandy Cross provided the land, and not just the one acre we needed, but 160 acres (which the university now owns)."

Cross was given the honour of naming the observatory, and suggested Rothney, his middle name and also his grandmother's name.

Today the observatory houses a 1.8-metre Cassegrain telescope, a 40.5-centimetre Newtonian telescope, and the Baker Nunn telescope, which has a 86.2-centimetre primary mirror with F/1 optics. The Baker Nunn, a Schmidt reflector telescope once used during the Cold War to look for Soviet satellites, now scans the sky for asteroids that may pose a threat to earth.

"With that telescope, almost by accident, one of the technicians, Rob Cardinal, discovered a comet, which now is named in perpetuity Comet Cardinal," said Clark. "A year or so later, he found a second one."

There is also a radio telescope configured for observing the dynamics of the hydrogen gas clouds in the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy.

Clark maintains the observatory's biggest contribution to astrophysics is the quality of graduates the program has produced.

"We've got several students who have worked, or still work at the Space Telescope Institute. The premier observatory in the world is run by one of our ex-students," he said.

"Sean Dougherty runs the ALMA telescope on the outer plane in Chile. The director of the Gravitational Wave Observatory is an ex-student of ours."

The current director of the Rothney is Dr. Phil Langill.

Remote controls have been installed on most of the telescopes at the observatory, allowing students to monitor them from off site, and  researchers from around the world to control them.

"These remotely controllable telescopes and cameras and detectors are what everybody does. So this is a state of the art observatory," said Langill. "This is the way astronomy is done around the world."

One of Canada’s top science communicators, Langill has made it a goal to use the Rothney as a public outreach tool to educate non-scientists about the night sky.

"The goal should be to get as many people here as possible because it's a really cool place. We do fun science. Everybody likes astronomy," he said.

"I mean, this is where we have all this nerdy scientific stuff, and it's not behind a piece of glass. People can come, and they can see it.  They can put their hands on it. We give people the chance to use their eyeballs to see things in the sky."

A recent outreach program called Milky Way Nights aimed to give Calgarians a chance to learn about, and to look into, the depths of our galaxy.

Turnout at the after-midnight event was overwhelming.

"The goal was to see if anybody would come late at night for a couple of nights in the summertime. And we were absolutely slammed," said Langill

"We were slammed. There were more people here for those events than had ever come to the observatory before. (It was) two o'clock in the morning and we're kicking people out because we couldn't get them to leave. That just speaks to the thirst among Calgarians to get back under the stars."

Langil says unfortunately the future looks bright for the Rothney observatory and bright is not what astronomers want near their telescopes.

"What's going to happen in the future? I think it depends a little bit on Calgarians. The city is growing, and our ability to do this discovery, follow-up observations and measurements is getting harder and harder," said Langill.

"I spend a lot of my time as the director now talking to people and reminding people about the stars. If we can get people to re-engage with the sky at night, then they're more cognizant of their choices about what kind of lights they use, in the hopes of keeping the skies a little bit darker.  If I can get people interested in that idea - that prolongs the life of the observatory."