Back in busi­ness for star-gaz­ing

Canada’s largest tele­scope is housed at Richmond Hill’s David Dun­lap Ob­ser­va­tory

The Delhi News-Record - - TRAVEL - ALANNA RIZZA

RICHMOND HILL, Ont. — Randy Attwood re­mem­bers visit­ing the David Dun­lap Ob­ser­va­tory for the first time as an eight-year-old boy and feel­ing awestruck as he looked up at the tow­er­ing 1.88-me­tre re­flec­tor tele­scope.

He never imag­ined that more than 40 years later he would de­liver lec­tures about as­tron­omy at the Richmond Hill, Ont., ob­ser­va­tory as the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Royal Astro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety of Canada.

“When you walk in for the first time into the ob­ser­va­tory, you see this mas­sive tele­scope,” said Attwood. “It’s over­whelm­ing for an eight-year-old that’s for sure ... I’m over­whelmed ev­ery time I go in there now as an adult. It’s an im­pres­sive thing to look at.”

This sum­mer the ob­ser­va­tory, which con­tains the largest tele­scope in Canada, re­opened to the pub­lic af­ter 10 years.

The town of Richmond Hill, which owns the ob­ser­va­tory and about half the sur­round­ing prop­erty, is for the first time look­ing to raise aware­ness of the site and reach the com­mu­nity through pro­gram­ming, said Mag­gie MacKen­zie, the town’s her­itage cen­tre co-or­di­na­tor.

About a 45-minute drive north from down­town Toronto, vis­i­tors can ev­ery Satur­day see the 1.88me­tre tele­scope be­ing op­er­ated, star gaze with tele­scopes set up on the lawn around the ob­ser­va­tory, and lis­ten to a guest speaker give an as­tron­omy talk. Once a month on Sun­days, tours of the ob­ser­va­tory and ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing pro­vide more in­for­ma­tion about the site’s his­tory. A space camp for kids also runs this sum­mer dur­ing the week.

Since the Univer­sity of Toronto sold the prop­erty in 2008, there has been years of lit­i­ga­tion over its own­er­ship and how it should be main­tained, said Ian Shel­ton, chair of the David Dun­lap Ob­ser­va­tory De­fend­ers, a group that formed in late 2007 to pro­tect the prop­erty and ad­vo­cate for its up­keep.

“It’s a gor­geous place. It’s a bestkept se­cret. Peo­ple should cer­tainly come visit it,” said Shel­ton, who runs pro­grams out of the ob­ser­va­tory and teaches as­tron­omy at the Univer­sity of Toronto.

“It’s a very, very nice place to visit based in terms of its es­thetic, but what it rep­re­sents in terms of Canadian his­tory is just even more spec­tac­u­lar.”

The ob­ser­va­tory’s 61-foot (18.6- me­tre) dome weighs 80 tonnes and was built in Eng­land and trans­ported by ship to Canada in 1933, said MacKen­zie. The tele­scope was the sec­ond largest in the world when the ob­ser­va­tory of­fi­cially opened in 1935.

The prop­erty was des­ig­nated a his­toric site in 2009 and most of the ob­ser­va­tory and ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing is in its orig­i­nal state. The tele­scope is still func­tional and hun­dreds of pho­to­graphs of plan­ets and con­stel­la­tions are still held in the ra­dio as­tron­omy room.

David Alexan­der Dun­lap was an avid as­tronomer, phi­lan­thropist and found­ing part­ner of the Hollinger gold mines. Af­ter he died in 1924, his wife, Jessie Don­alda Dun­lap, do­nated the prop­erty to the Univer­sity of Toronto as a me­mo­rial for her hus­band. The ob­ser­va­tory was then at the fore­front of Canadian astro­nom­i­cal re­search through the univer­sity.

“There were a num­ber of prom­i­nent as­tronomers that made this place their home,” said MacKen­zie.

He­len Sawyer Hogg, one of few fe­male as­tronomers at the time, started re­search­ing in the ob­ser­va­tory in the 1930s. She pho­tographed over 2,000 stars, pub­lished more than 200 pa­pers and wrote a col­umn for a Toronto news­pa­per from the 1950s to the 1980s through her work at the ob­ser­va­tory.

Dr. Charles Thomas Bolton was a post-doc­toral re­searcher at the ob­ser­va­tory in 1970, and two years later through his re­search he dis­cov­ered a black hole.

“But at this time light pol­lu­tion started to be­come a prob­lem,” MacKen­zie said.

She said around the 1970s, as Richmond Hill’s pop­u­la­tion grew and the sur­round­ing ar­eas de­vel­oped, light pol­lu­tion be­came more of an is­sue, and the as­tronomers had to adapt their re­search meth­ods.

For in­stance, when Dr. Don­ald Alexan­der MacRae was the direc­tor of the ob­ser­va­tory and chair of the univer­sity’s as­tron­omy depart­ment from the 1960s to 1978, he es­tab­lished a ra­dio as­tron­omy pro­gram that used a 24-inch (61-cm) tele­scope in Chile, said MacKen­zie. She added be­cause of the light pol­lu­tion, some re­search would be con­ducted in Chile and com­mu­ni­cated to as­tronomers at the Dun­lap ob­ser­va­tory

But de­spite the ef­forts, as­tronomers re­al­ized that the tele­scope wasn’t as use­ful and soon af­ter the ob­ser­va­tory was no longer used for re­search, Attwood said.

“Light pol­lu­tion is a ma­jor prob­lem and it has been for a long time. Light pol­lu­tion is a real chal­lenge,” Attwood said. “It ru­ins the night sky for peo­ple. Very few peo­ple have seen a to­tally dark sky.”

Even though the ob­ser­va­tory is no longer used for astro­nom­i­cal re­search, Attwood said the site has al­ways been “a cen­tral fo­cus for ed­u­ca­tion and out­reach” as the com­mu­nity con­tin­u­ally comes by the ob­ser­va­tory to look up at the night sky dur­ing the sum­mer.

“I couldn’t think of a bet­ter way to spend an evening.”

The Dun­lap Ob­ser­va­tory in Richmond Hill, Ont., hosted a fam­ily night on Satur­day, Au­gust, 18.

CHRISTO­PHER KATSAROV/ THE CANADIAN PRESS PHO­TOS

The tele­scope in the Dun­lap Ob­ser­va­tory in Richmond Hill, Ont.

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