The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory is celebrating its centennial anniversary on May 6. (FILE CONTRIBUTED)

Plaskett telescope turns 100; recognized as national historic site

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich has made astronomical discoveries since 1918

Stargazers have made defining astronomical discoveries for 100 years using a Canadian telescope sitting on an unsuspecting hill in Saanich, and now Parks Canada has recognized it as a national historic site.

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, which for years was home to the Centre of the Universe at 5071 West Saanich Rd., had its famous Plaskett telescope installed on May 6, 1918, which began a wave of research at the observatory that propelled Canada onto the world stage of astrophysics.

The telescope was the country’s first major publicly funded “big science” project, and for over 30 years enjoyed the status of being one of the world’s largest telescopes. Major discoveries, including John Stanley Plaskett’s work on the structure of the Milky Way, research into binary stars, studies of stellar X-ray sources and stellar-mass black holes are some of the accomplishments made at the facility.

In recognition of the centennial anniversary, Parks Canada unveiled a plaque Thursday morning which recognized the observatory as a national historic site, a well-deserved honour, noted DAO director Dr. Dennis Crabtree.

“It set Canada on a path and really put us on the map,” he said.

Crabtree has worked on and off with the Plaskett telescope since he began studying astrophysics in the late ’70s. He has also worked intermittently at some of the world’s most powerful and modern telescopes, including those in Baltimore, Hawaii and Chile.

Comparing those telescopes with the Plaskett would be like “comparing a 20-year-old sprinter with an 80-year-old at a 100-metre dash,” but that the foundational work the Plaskett has allowed in astrophysics is monumental.

The Plaskett Telescope, at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, in 1918 and 2018. Today, the telescope has accumulated nearly a century of upgrades that make it 10,000 times more sensitive than when it was first built. (FILE CONTRIBUTED)

As an example, he noted that some measurements initially conducted by the telescope’s namesake remain relevant, including the mapping of the Milky Way. “It’s still the iconic diagram used in text books, and the shape and form is essentially what Plaskett drew in 1934.”

While the telescope is no longer on the forefront of technology, it is still used every night by students, for longer-term monitoring, and watching asteroids.

“It’s important work, but just not making the front page news,” Crabtree said.

Visitors are welcome to visit the Centre of the Universe area at the observatory, but they can also see an exhibit about the Observatory’s history at a special, free display going up on the first floor of the Royal BC Museum starting Friday. Included will be a timeline of the observatory’s accomplishments and a small-scale model of the Plaskett telescope built in 1914.

For more information you can also visit the DOA’s website at https://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/solutions/facilities/dao.html

nicole.crescenzi@vicnews.com

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