Calgary-area observatory celebrates 50 years under the stars

·2 min read
The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory opened its doors in 1972 — beginning its journey of curiosity under the stars and sun. Pictured is construction of the telescope dome in 1971. (Submitted by Rothney Astrophysical Observatory - image credit)
The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory opened its doors in 1972 — beginning its journey of curiosity under the stars and sun. Pictured is construction of the telescope dome in 1971. (Submitted by Rothney Astrophysical Observatory - image credit)

It's been 50 years to the day since the doors to the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory near Priddis, Alta., opened to the public — and as co-founder Alan Clark remembers it, it was just about as cold on that day as it is today.

Clark, who is also a professor emeritus in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, said the journey certainly doesn't feel like 50 years.

"Strangely, I arrived at the right time from Britain — or the wrong time, depending how you looked at it," Clark told The Homestretch.

"[It was decided] that a way to attract students was to start teaching astronomy, which many universities in North America had begun to do."

In 1970, Clark was tasked with designing an observatory to support the new astronomy undergraduate program.

The program was eventually offered a quarter-section of land by Sandy Cross, who was a prominent rancher.

Clark said that aside from the discoveries made by the observatory over the years, what makes him most proud is all the students who have been trained over the years.

"Many of whom have gone on to very senior positions in astronomy all over the world," he said.

Aside from the teaching, the observatory also offers open houses to the public and offers various courses to high school students.

Submitted by Rothney Astrophysical Observatory
Submitted by Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

Of course, the observatory has also played host to discovery — such as when Rob Cardinal, looking for an asteroid while using the Baker-Nunn telescope instead found a comet.

"That comet now carries his name throughout perpetuity," Clark said.

"To his credit, he has moved on to provide astronomical instruction for all of the reserves in Alberta. Being an Indigenous person himself, he feels this is a very important way to get youth involved in science."

Clark said he wants people to visit the facility so that they can experience the wonders it offers.

"It's always been about teaching," he said.

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