Watching the skies for nearly a century

Saanich's Dominion Astrophysical Observatory shows how far we’ve come

Dennis Crabtree

For almost a century, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory has stood as a symbol of greatness in Canadian astronomy.

Since 1918, the domed building has overlooked the rest of Saanich from Observatory Hill while astronomers inside – including Canada’s own John S. Plaskett – made breakthroughs that have shaped our current understanding of outer space.

But why did Plaskett pick Vancouver Island as an appropriate setting for a then state-of-the-art observatory? The answer is two-fold.

“Because it was such a big investment, he convinced people that it should be in the best possible place rather than outside the politicians’ door,” said acting director Dennis Crabtree, noting that a lot of astronomy research at the time was conducted in Ottawa. “Surprisingly for the time, Victoria was the best spot in Canada.

“The glass for the mirror was sensitive to temperature changes. In Victoria, we have more gradual temperature changes, so that’s why it was decided to be the best place to put it.”

Plaskett recognized that in order for Canada to take part in modern astrophysics, they needed a larger telescope and a greater focus on studying stars. He designed the Plaskett telescope, which had a 72-inch aperture, making it the second-largest telescope in the world at the time.

“Its first big project, its reason for being, was to measure the velocities of all the bright stars in the sky,” said Crabtree. “They were able to map out the shape and scale of the Milky Way galaxy for the first time. It was a real major accomplishment at the time.”

Since then, our understanding of the universe has grown exponentially, and scientific advancements have grown beyond the Saanich observatory.

To illustrate the drastic changes in technology, there are two blue circles painted on the observatory parking lot: One 1.83 metres in diameter, representing the Plaskett telescope, and one 30 metres in diameter, representing a telescope being built in Hawaii.

“That’s what 100 years does for technology,” said Crabtree.

While the DAO may not be making scientific breakthroughs like it used to, the National Research Council of Canada, which operates the observatory, is involved in numerous international projects, including studies using the 3.58-metre Canada–France–Hawaii Telescope and the twin 8.1-metre Gemini Observatory telescopes in Hawaii and Chile.

The NRC also develops instruments for telescopes, such as spectrographs and cameras, and houses information for the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre, including data from the Hubble Space Telescope. All that information takes up 1.6 petabytes – equivalent to 1.6 million gigabytes.

While the DAO may not be as scientifically ground-breaking as it used to be, the observatory is a testament to how far astronomy has progressed in 100 years – and how much further it can go.

“My first trip over here was when I was an undergrad at UBC in 1974. Even since then, it’s unbelievable,” said Crabtree of how our knowledge of the universe has changed.

 

“I’ve been involved in this a long time and I still think it’s cool stuff.”

 

 

Just Posted

Victoria’s Other Secret not so secret anymore

How six Mount Doug teachers turned a lunch jam into $11,000 raised for charity

PHOTOS: Inside the opening of the expanded Westhills Stadium

The grand opening of the expanded stadium in Langford is on schedule for Aug. 24

Award-nominated Snotty Nose Rez Kids headline Indigifest 2019 coming to Victoria

Scheduled for Aug. 24, the event is a showcase of Indigenous musicians from around B.C.

Cycslists were all smiles during ninth Tour de Victoria

More than 2,100 cyclists participated

‘I’m just absolutely disgusted’: Husband furious after Const. Beckett’s killer gets day parole

Kenneth Fenton was sentenced to prison after he fatally struck Const. Sarah Beckett’s cruiser

QUIZ: How much do you remember about Woodstock?

Weekend music festival in Bethel, New York, was held 50 years ago

‘It’s just the freedom:’ Paralyzed Broncos player pursuing life on the water

The former Humboldt Broncos goaltender, who started in the net when he was nine, was paralyzed last year

Canadians killed in Afghanistan honoured during emotional dedication ceremony

One-hundred-fifty-eight Canadian soldiers died during the mission

It’s snow joke: Up to 30 cm of snow expected to fall in northeastern B.C.

Alaska Highway, Fort Nelson to be hit with August snowstorm, according to Environment Canada

Sea-to-Sky Gondola in B.C. likely out of commission until 2020

Sea to Sky Gondola carries between 1,500 and 3,000 people every day during the summer season

Helicopter-riding dog Mr. Bentley now featured on cans of new B.C.-made beer

Partial proceeds from every pack go to Children’s Wish

PHOTOS: Weapons seized at Portland right-wing rally, counterprotests

Not all who gathered Saturday were with right-wing groups or antifa

Ferries employees participating in Denman Island cleanup for plastic-shedding ferry

The cleanup comes a few weeks after one organized by residents of the Island

Discussion on grief and loss between Stephen Colbert, Anderson Cooper goes viral

The exchange includes emotional question from Cooper, and outlook on grief as a child

Most Read