Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Scanning Outer Space in the Campus Observatory

By Paige

“Today we are looking at the sun.”

Aresh, A PhD student in Astrophysics at the University of Alberta says with a smile, his voice echoing within a vast metal dome. Through an opening in the dome’s rounded roof, the bright blue July sky can be seen, and on the dome’s floor, beside a group of visitors, an imposingly large telescope is aimed up at the heavens. Welcome to the Campus Observatory.

Tucked away on the 5th floor of the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, the Campus Observatory is one of many hidden scientific gems in the open concept building. A stone’s throw outside the observatory’s glass doors, hangs a scale model of the universe; the planets are suspended  vertically over the atrium while the building’s marble floor doubles as a map of the stars.

The observatory serves as both a research centre for undergraduates and a space for public education. Run by Dr. Sharon Morsink, an associate professor in the Department of Physics, the airy glass space is clean, modern and enticing. Out on the deck stand three massive silver domes and a spectacular southern view of the University of Alberta’s sprawling campus. Dr. Morsink looks up at the cloudless, bright blue sky and remarks that it’ll be a good day to observe the sun. 

“You can’t normally look at the sun, it burns out your eyes,” Thomas, an observatory volunteer explains with a laugh to a group of visitors as they enter the first of the three domes. “So we have a filter that we put on here that cuts down the amount of light that come through. So it’s like a really good pair of sunglasses.”

During the day, observatory volunteers like Thomas and Aresh help visitors view the sun, teaching them how to scan the fireball’s surface for prominences, which are solar flares off the sun’s edges; and for sunspots, black marks which are pockets of reduced heat on the sun’s surface. When open at night, the observatory trains its scopes on the moon, any visible planets, and big and bright nebulae.  

“Our viewings really depend on the season, what’s going to be up in the sky varies depending on the time of year,” explains Thomas. “We just try to find things that are interesting to look at, though there are many stars out there that are very important for research, sometimes they just look like big bright dots.”

Throughout the Observatory's operating hours, Thomas, Aresh, and the other volunteers work alongside Dr. Morsink. All friendly and inviting, the crew leads visitors around and explains what they should be looking for when peering into  the telescopes.

School groups and summer camps regularly use the observatory’s lecture space. Add that to  the members of the public and campus community who visit during viewing hours each week, and Dr. Morsink approximates that 3000 people came by to use the space over the past year. 

Aresh explains that volunteering at the observatory is a natural fit. Before coming to the U of A he was involved with the observatory at a university in Iran. As for Thomas, he smiles and gives a shrug.

“I just thought it sounded cool, I got involved four years ago when I was in my first year,” he says. 

For Dr. Morsink, the observatory is a labour of love. She’s been involved with campus observatories for more than 10 years and continues to enthusiastically welcome visitors to share in her passion for space. 

The observatory is open on Thursday afternoons from 12 to 1 p.m. More information can be found at www.facebook.com/UofAObservatory.  


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