Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Update: Community leaders coming together to reopen Saanich Observatory

Dear Friend of the Saanich Observatory,

How about a little good news? Our effort to restore public access to Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and reopen the Centre of the Universe is moving forward!

Through my non-partisan Constituency Office, I have connected over the last two months with more than a dozen community leaders. As it turns out, they all share the same goal: restore public access to the Saanich Observatory!

I’ve received encouragement and input from a group that includes astronomy buffs, the President of the National Research Council (NRC) and the General Manager of the NRC Herzberg; the Presidents of the Royal Astronomy Society of Canada, Victoria Chapter; the President of the Prospect Lake Community Association; UVIC staff, students, Professors and Deans; elected officials at the school board, municipal, provincial and federal levels; successful business owners, tourist operators and astronomy educators in Saanich and the region; the CEO of the Royal BC Museum; BC Government representatives in the areas of heritage, technology and tourism; and of course teachers, parents and children.

To further our shared goal, I am organizing a meeting for stakeholders in late November at the Observatory itself. I will update you after that meeting but I am always open to hearing your input and am building a list of people who like to be involved - please be in touch!

It is my privilege to actively assist this community effort. Please have a look at my Comment in yesterday's Times Colonist for my perspective on this issue.

I look forward to hearing your reflections, and to working with you to realize a successful future for this historic site.

Warm regards,


Lana Popham
MLA Saanich South
P: 250.479.4154 | F: 250.479.4176 |

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Times Colonist: We should reopen observatory to the public

Courtesy of BC Archives, Royal BC Museum
Times Colonist, Comment Page, A11, by Lana Popham, 29 Oct 2013

Federal budget cuts closed the Saanich Observatory to the public last summer; public effort can ensure it is reopened.
There may be no better place in Canada to look at the stars than right here in Saanich. That is why, 100 years ago, Little Saanich Mountain was chosen as the site for what became the most powerful telescope in the world.
Construction of the observatory began in 1914 under the leadership of Canada’s top astronomer of the day, John Stanley Plaskett. Two years later, the site was ready for the telescope’s 9.5-tonne polar axis. It took 12 draft horses a day and a half to cart it to the top. The final piece needed was an enormous Belgian-cast glass mirror that was carefully turned on its side and rolled like a dime into the Observatory. There it was silvered and mounted in place and the observatory captured its first images on May 6, 1918.
The observatory is a beautiful icon of science and it should surprise no one that it is a National Historic Site. But what does surprise many is that this old telescope is still used today for cutting-edge scientific work. A state-of-the-art digital back-end is now strapped to its enormous mirrored eye, making it 10,000 times more sensitive than when first built.
Astronomers from around the world use the telescope. Beside the observatory is the Herzberg Institute, a sprawling complex run by the National Research Council. It is the centre of astronomy in Canada with 150 employees on site and an annual budget of about $30 million. Much of this money is spent locally, making a significant contribution to our local economy.
One of the main activities undertaken at NRC Herzberg is the development of technology. For example, sophisticated hardware — made up of components measured in micrometres — is fabricated and used in astronomical equipment around the world and in outer space. Herzberg also houses an enormous data centre. It is a key global hub of astronomical knowledge, sending out terabytes of data to researchers around the world.
Over the past decade, the federal government funded excellent public-outreach efforts at the observatory. In 2001, it built an interpretive centre, the Centre of the Universe, and since then has invested about $250,000 a year in public outreach.
That investment led to many activities, including public Saturday night star viewings, sci-fi movies projected on the side of the observatory, regular busloads of people on heritage and tourist visits, intensive youth summer camps and tens of thousands of public visits and school class trips.
This last point is, in my view, the greatest value to the community. Our children benefit enormously from witnessing high-level science in action and learning about the universe from top NRC staff and scientists. Many young people have been inspired to pursue the sciences from their experiences at the Saanich Observatory.
All of this outreach came to a crashing halt last summer with an announcement by the federal government that, for the first time in its history, there would be no public access to the Saanich Observatory. You can still climb the hill at certain times, but at the top you will find the Centre of the Universe closed and the historic observatory itself is off-limits to the public. The change was described by the government as a cost-saving measure, even though the expense was a minuscule 0.02 per cent of the $950-million NRC budget.
But this story is not over!
The abrupt closure had an unintended consequence: It sparked thousands of people to learn about what they were losing and they soon came together to push for a better outcome. Media coverage of the impending closure led almost 1,000 people to try to visit on the final public night — and almost every one of them signed a petition calling for funding of public access to be restored.
I have organized a meeting in the observatory on Nov. 23 to help us move in that direction. Key stakeholders — including NRC staff, public educators, heritage experts, University of Victoria professors, local business people and other community leaders — will come together for the first time. Together, we can convert the tremendous passion in the community for the observatory into a plan to reopen it to the public.
When the Plaskett telescope took its first pictures 100 years ago, astronomers thought there was just one galaxy, our Milky Way. Today we believe there are at least 100 billion galaxies out there, each with 300 billion stars! The Saanich Observatory is our window onto the universe. We must work together to ensure public access is restored.