Monday, November 25, 2013

Centre of the Universe could reopen next spring

By Kyle Wells - Victoria News
Published: November 25, 2013 10:00 AM 
Updated: November 25, 2013 10:57 AM

Victoria stargazers will once again be looking to the skies, thanks to a tentative deal to reopen Centre of the Universe for Saturday nights beginning in April 2014.

The National Research Council, the operator of the Saanich-based facility, has agreed to give the public access to the Plaskett telescope on Saturdays and to provide a person to operate it. All other roles for the astronomy public outreach facility will be filled by volunteers from the Victoria branch of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, who are at the facility regularly on Saturdays anyway, using their own telescopes.

NRC will also provide upkeep to the building, security and a person who is trained to run the telescope.

“They want to work with us. They said they will do everything that they can to make sure that works well,” said Lana Popham, MLA for Saanich South.

The agreement came in the wake of a meeting on Saturday at the observatory with NRC vice president Dan Wayner, who flew in from Ottawa to speak with about 30 local stakeholders, including University of Victoria professors, astronomers, educators, parents and others.

“Everybody you can imagine was around the table,” Popham said.

The Centre of the Universe houses educational displays and historic astronomy artifacts, and was closed to the public in August, due to funding cuts from the federal government. MP Randall Garrison tabled a petition in November with nearly 2,000 signatures calling to reopen the centre. The government has until February 2014 to respond to the petition.

The reopening will happen without any direct funding from the federal government. Closing the centre saved the NRC's $900-million budget about $230,000 per year, mainly in staff wages.

“We knew probably by the end of September (the federal government) was a tree not worth barking up,” Popham said. “So instead of looking at this as an opportunity lost, we had to start looking at it as a new opportunity.”

Science Venture, a non-profit at UVic, has also presented a six-month pilot project it wants to run with outreach to children, including workshops for school groups and spring and summer break programs.

“Potentially, if we can get that going, kids will have access again as early as February,” Popham said.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 people – many of them school kids – have visited the national historic site each year since the Centre of the Universe opened 12 years ago.

Without NRC funding, Saturday night stargazing will now be able to be advertised, something which was not possible under the old model.

Two working groups have been struck up to help the facility move forward. The short term group will be working towards having the facility open for Saturday nights by April. The long-term group will be looking at the overall future of the observatory.

Popham said a Friends of the Observatory charity will also likely be necessary in order to organize volunteers and fundraise to help keep the facility going.

Wayner has also committed to flying out again for the first Saturday night the facility is reopened for stargazing.

“He knows it’s important and he wants to experience it too,” Popham said. “The community was so incredibly disappointed last summer. (NRC) hadn’t expected such a public backlash from closing it and I think they’re inspired by our community.”

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