UVIC students Matthew Wine, Kristi Webb, Kris Youakim, Jordan King-Nyberg, Levente Buzas and Cameron Wilson watch as Russ Robb, senior lab instructor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, at the University of Victoria shows Monday editor Laura Lavin how to operate the university's 0.8 meter DFM Cassegrain telescope.

West Coast Wild: Reach for the stars

University of Victoria Astronomy open house gets people closer to outer limits

  • Nov. 20, 2014 11:00 a.m.

Walking into the University of Victoria’s Bob Wright Centre makes one feel instantly young. I’m greeted by a group of intelligent, interesting youth whose thirst for discovery is infectious.

The room we enter is filled with maps of the skies and photos of what I can only guess are constellations, nebulas and asteroids. A computer in the corner is occupied by a student, while others sit on desks and five or six more lean against a railing that leads to our ultimate destination.

A wall of windows leads to the rooftop where eight 8-inch Celestron telescopes sit under cover. Right now it’s too windy and light out to use the small telescopes, but we are mere feet from deep space anyway.

Up a short ramp, then a few stairs, astronomer Russ Robb leads the group. He opens the door to complete darkness, as he moves in front of me he snaps on a light and there it is: the “Lexus” of telescopes.

UVic is proud to be the home of the largest on-campus telescope in Canada, so proud in fact that they love to show it off to the public.

“It’s worth $600,000, the price of a house or a really nice boat,” says Robb. And it has a remote control. With the push of a button, the telescope can be manoeuvred to view anywhere in the sky. Even higher on the “cool” factor, in seconds the massive 32-inch telescope can pinpoint objects in deep space with the click of a computer mouse.

Mounted at the base of the telescope is another integral bit of machinery, a $50,000 camera that can take photos of space.

“Lots of people come here to view space. From really young people to really old people and lots of students too,” says Robb. “From people who know nothing, to people who know a lot and people with stuff to ask questions about.”

Looking through the lens of the telescope, we can see a distance of 2.4 billion light years.

I ask Robb if they’re not worried about letting the general public get their hands on this valuable piece of machinery.

“It’s all about the university giving back,” he says. “It’s very robust. Not a lot of things can go wrong with it.”

While many Victoria residents are aware of the Centre of the Universe and its 72-inch Plaskett telescope built in 1916, true space enthusiasts come to the university to take advantage of the new technology provided by viewing through the DFM telescope built in 2010.

Three students are paid to help run the outreach program which runs 8 to 10pm Wednesdays from October to April and 9 to 10pm May to August, several more show up just for the fun of it.

“The ability to use the telescope is enough pay for the work here,” says engineering student Levente Buzas. The former Pearson College student, whose home is in Hungary, was drawn to study at UVic by the opportunity to use the DFM Cassegrain telescope.

UVic’s astronomy and astrophysics group in the Department of Physics and Astronomy is among the best in the country. Victoria even boasts the largest per capita concentration of astronomers in Canada.

Through the telescope the students have seen the 2012 transit of Venus as that planet crossed the sun, the explosion of supernovas and the recent partial solar eclipse.

Those that study the sky know, “things don’t evolve on a human time scale,” says student Cam Wilson. “There’s lots of things we haven’t discovered yet.”

“Plus, space is cool,” adds fourth year physics and astronomy student Jordan King-Nyberg.

Yeah. Space is cool.

 

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