A starry night in Ottawa – telescope tour with Elizabeth Howell

Photo credit: Helen Sawyer Hogg Observatory

Elizabeth Howell is a business and science journalist based in Ottawa who blogs about Canadian space exploration at Pars3c. Her next astronomical venture will be using a telescope over the Internet as a Master of Space Studies distance student at the University of North Dakota.

I’m an astronomy nut. Fortunately for me, you don’t have to go far in Ottawa to see some serious stars. You can even see the brighter planets and constellations from the city’s suburbs – where I grew up.

I suffered through years of tiny telescopes unaware that two publicly available large ‘scopes are based here in Ottawa. That said, the years I spent on the smaller instruments were educational.

For years I got by on a borrowed two-inch telescope whose sole purpose was to make bright planets look large and blurry.

Then my folks gave me a larger, six-inch telescope, which was somewhat better. It stayed steady in the wind and I could watch Jupiter’s moons move over several nights, or admire our moon’s craters along the line between darkness and light.

But I wanted something bigger. Better. Able to observe Martian ice caps and sunspots. Hence began my teenage quest for the biggest ‘scopes Ottawa has to offer – instruments that are thankfully still around and easy to get to today.

My first stop was the Canada Science and Technology Museum‘s astronomy nights. You’d get a warm-up lecture for about an hour that would talk about asteroids or Mars weather or some other relevant space-geek topic.

When the night was done (and if the skies were clear) the kids would rush out en masse to use the telescope at the Helen Sawyer Hogg Observatory just outside the museum.

The 15-inch telescope has been around for 105 years at two locations, and by now I’m sure tens of thousands of local kids have lined up to look at the planets through its eyes.

Its “first light” was in 1905 at the Dominion Observatory, which itself has a storied history. According to Natural Resources Canada (the current owners of the site), the observatory at Ottawa’s Experimental Farm was not only formed to check out the planets, but also to give more exact measurements for surveying on Planet Earth.

Yes, surveying.

Inside the observatory was a time signal that surveyors in the western parts of Canada could listen to, presumably by telephone, while they were in the field. They would compare the time signal to the “local” time in whatever province they happened to be in, basically by looking at the stars.

The telescope stayed there for 65 years until the astronomical portion of the observatory was closed. The building still stands, but the telescope moved to the museum in 1974.

I remember long nights standing there talking with the people who ran the astronomy nights. They were the ones that first made me aware of the other large telescope in Ottawa – the one at Carleton University.

It took a few years for me to use the telescope as it’s easier to get access when you’re a student. The moment I was accepted into journalism at Carleton, I looked up course dates and times for the general astronomy course offered by the physics department.

To my delight, the 14-inch telescope was quite available for astronomy nights and even independent projects. I think I used that ‘scope at least three times a month during the year I had access to it – and if I had lived closer to campus, I would have been there several times a week.

Light pollution is bad in the area, so you can’t see all that much through its lens. But it did come equipped with a solar filter.

One day I was up in the observatory and the teaching assistant pointed out several large sunspots right in the centre of the sun. She told me if they chose to erupt that night, we’d see the Northern Lights in Ottawa as bits of the sun hit the Earth’s magnetic field.

That night, the celestial fireworks were so bright I could see the aurora through a window. The entire sky rippled with green and red in a display I hadn’t seen before or have seen since.

Science in action, in my backyard. All thanks to a 15-inch telescope perched on the top of Carleton’s Herzberg Laboratories. I wish all my stories were so simple.