Lauri Roche stands outside the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich. It is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year after starting operations on May 6, 1918. Wolf Depner/News Staff

Stars come out Saturday nights in Saanich

Dominion Astrophysical Observatory hosting Saturday Star Parties for the next five weeks

Lauri Roche has a problem — a good problem, mind you — in organizing the Saturday Star Parties at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in rural Saanich.

Thanks to modern media including social media, public knowledge of astronomical phenomenon, events, and new discoveries continues to expand in creating expectations for the event.

“We have to be on top of things,” says Roche, a board member of the Friends of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (FDAO) who is also a member and former president of the Victoria chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), who co-organizes the events.

The remaining five star parties — Aug. 4, 11, 18, 25 and Sept. 1 — certainly promise to offer plenty of talking points, as the night sky has and continues to generate a lot of attention these days, or shall we say, nights.

Four of the five brightest planets that humans can see with their naked eyes — Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — will stretch across the early evening sky from west to east in August, with Mars drawing much of the attention.

On early Tuesday morning, Mars came closer to Earth than at any other point since 2013 — the year of its closest approach. It won’t be as close as Tuesday for another 17 years. This proximity promises nothing less than spectacular views of the Red Planet, which will be the third brightest object in the nighttime sky (next to the moon and Venus) until Sept. 6 , eclipsing even Jupiter in brightness.

Last month also included the discovery of 12 new Jupiter moons, and a lunar eclipse (unfortunately not visible in North America). And yes, scientists also discovered water on Mars.

“I think there is a constant interest in astronomy,” said Roche. “It’s something that is truly accessible and there is always something go on.”

The star parties appeal to this natural curiosity in a number of ways. Each star party begins at 7:15 and closes at 11 p.m, with activities taking place inside and outside the observatory as well as the neighbouring Centre of the Universe, an interpretive centre.

Each evening includes lectures from professional and amateur astronomers. Attendees can also take in one of six planetarium shows inside the Centre of the Universe or float around inside or outside the International Space Station thanks to a recently virtual reality station.

Three tours of the actual observatory (the Plaskett Dome) celebrating its centenary this year are also available.

But perhaps the core of the evening consists out of peeking through the multiple telescopes set up just outside the observatory. They include a 16-inch research grade-telescope and the private telescopes of local RASC members.

“We gets lots of oohs and aahs, when we show them Jupiter’s moons or Saturn’s rings,” she said. These are the moments that generate the most excitement. “It’s invigorating,” she said. “People are looking for something new when they come, which is what we want.”

Getting there is not without its challenge. The observatory sits on top of a mountain, and parking can be an issue, as each star party draws anywhere between 200 and 250 people. Each party is free with tickets available for EventBrite. But not everybody, who reserves tickets picks them up, and individuals can join the party on the day of.

Overall, the star parties signify a resurgence for local public education programming in the field of astronomy. Organizers have already held as many parties in 2018 (15) than in 2017 (16). These numbers in turn mark an increase from 2014 when RASC scheduled seven, the year after the Centre of Universe had closed because of federal budget cuts. FDAO’s formation in June 2015 has slowly, but steadily breathed new life into the facility thanks to fund-raising, and is now drawing school tours and other visitors, with expanded hours during the summer.

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