Starry, starry night

On a dark night on campus, the Queen’s Observatory illuminates the sky

The telescope at the Queen’s Observatory has been at its current location on the roof of Ellis Hall since 1958. The observatory will next be open to the public on Saturday, Feb. 10 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.
The telescope at the Queen’s Observatory has been at its current location on the roof of Ellis Hall since 1958. The observatory will next be open to the public on Saturday, Feb. 10 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.
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Before last Saturday, the closest I had come to a telescope was about five years ago at summer camp. I was saying a passionate goodnight to that year’s summer fling, when we heard voices nearby.

Red-faced, we turned to find the camp’s directors standing in the field, gathered around a telescope, one of them holding binoculars, looking in our direction. People have been looking skyward for thousands of years, using the stars as guides for determining weather patterns, seasons and agriculture. Long before the invention of the telescope, ancient peoples were deciphering the mass of the moon and its distance from the earth and recognizing the cycles of eclipses. Today, stargazing remains both a popular hobby and research pursuit. Last Saturday, the Kingston chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) and the Queen’s physics department held an open house at the Queen’s Observatory. The telescope, which has a 16-inch mirror, is housed inside a rotating dome on the roof of Ellis Hall. Kevin Kell, a member of the Astronomical Society, gave a presentation at the open house titled “Astrotourism in Kingston.” Although he considers himself an amateur astronomer, Kell dedicates a lot of time to his hobby. He said he got involved in astronomy while studying at Queen’s.

“I was a student here and I joined [the RASC] formally as a student. Really it allowed me to follow through on a childhood interest,” Kell said. That childhood interest is what lead Kell to build his own backyard observatory and weather station at his home outside the city.

He and his spouse load all the information gathered onto a website, starlightcascade.ca, information such as cloud cover, current temperature and live webcam photos of the sky. As it turns out, Kingston has a wealth of tourist sites to visit for the astronomically-inclined. From the historical plaque at the site of Kingston’s first observatory in City Park to the old astronomical instruments on display in Stirling Hall, there’s lots to see.

There’s even the 550 million-year-old Holleford meteorite crater north of the city, near the village of Hartington, which Kell said was one of the few craters in the world that’s easily accessible by road.

Here at Queen’s, astronomy is more than just a hobby. I talked to Terry Bridges, who is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and the observatory’s co-ordinator. Bridges said the telescope at Queen’s, which is mainly used for research by undergraduate students, as well as for some 2,500 elementary school students who visit the observatory every year, allows researchers to see quasars in other galaxies, which are billions of light years away, as well as nearby galaxy clusters, which are about 50 million light years away. “Beyond that, it gets hard. The telescope just isn’t that big and light pollution in Kingston is a problem,” he said. “Kingston is not as bad as Toronto or a big city, but we notice a lot of light pollution. We’re working with the university to have down-lighting as much as possible. Anytime that there is too much light around, people don’t get a good view of the night sky, which I think is really important.”

The best places to see the night sky, according to Bridges are on mountaintops, where you don’t have to battle cloud cover. He said Hawaii and Chile both provide top quality telescope locations.

“I used to work in Australia, and the southern sky is really nice— the center of the galaxy is right overhead,” Bridges said. My own first look into the telescope at the observatory was kind of disappointing. The telescope was focused on some stars, which, through my untrained eyes, looked like white blobs— just a little brighter and a little bigger than they would through the naked eye.

Later on in the evening, I took a second, more satisfying look. Saturn had risen to the northeast and the big telescope was tracking it through the sky. I was told to look for something pinkish in the center of the lens. It was impossible to miss: a slightly fuzzy globe surrounded by visible rings. After seeing illustrations of Saturn and its rings in elementary school, I found it hard to believe that I was actually seeing the real thing. What looked like just another star to the naked eye, was actually another planet, more than a billion kilometres away. It was dizzying. I’m not the only one awed by the sheer scale of space. For Sam Johnson, ArtSci ’08, who studies astrophysics, astronomy is more than just a scholarly pursuit. “We do a lot of physics, but we learn about how the universe was created and just the vastness of it all,” he said. Bridges also said that studying the stars helps him to find perspective.

“Aesthetically, I love seeing the dark night sky, the stars and planets. I think it helps us to realize our place in the universe, seeing how far away stars are and how vast the universe is,” he said. Johnson’s lab partner, Maggie McLean, said that because of the added aspects of biology and chemistry, astronomy is also about extremely small things. I talked to Johnson and McLean just before they were about to begin researching for their Astro 350 class—research that involves looking for extra-solar planets, which are planets outside our own solar system, that rotate around other stars. These are planets that we don’t even know exist at this point, planets that are so far away, they can only be spotted from the tiny bit of light they block as they pass in front of the parent star.

“It’s really exciting to think that we could actually contribute to new research,” McLean said. New research is one of the things that makes astronomy so exciting—there are so many unanswered questions about the size of the universe, the search for life on other planets, as well as mysterious things such as dark energy and dark matter, which sounds like the stuff of sci-fi. And of course, the one thing the telescope can’t explain—the why of it all. If you’re interested in seeing into galaxies far, far away, visit the observatory during one of their monthly open houses, join the Kingston RASC or take one of their non-credit astronomy courses. For more information, see rasc.ca/Kingston or astro.queensu.ca.

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