Planned observatory in Calgary aims to inspire new generation of scientists

The Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada was awarded a $125,000 matching grant to build a public observatory in southeast Calgary.  (The Associated Press - image credit)
The Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada was awarded a $125,000 matching grant to build a public observatory in southeast Calgary. (The Associated Press - image credit)

The Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) marks its 65th anniversary this weekend. It's also celebrating another stellar milestone: secured funding for a new public observatory.

If all goes according to plan, the new star-gazing facility will be built in Ralph Klein Park, a 30-hectare wetland on the city's southeastern edge.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to start this year with construction," said Robyn Foret, the past-president of the society, in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.

For the last seven years, the Calgary Centre, at which Foret also served as president, has raised money through donations and the province's casino fundraising program — which allows charitable organizations to conduct and manage casino events.

The Calgary Centre raised $125,000, and they were just awarded a provincial grant matching the funds, Foret said.

"We finally got our turn after a number of applications."

Submitted by Robyn Foret
Submitted by Robyn Foret

With a budget and a building design set, the next step is working with Calgary Parks and other groups to iron out the details on constructing a public building.

"It's not like building a garage," Foret said. "We have a different kind of structure. It's going to be a steel building. It's going to respect the architectural feel of the Ralph Klein Park facility."

An urban observatory

One of the main goals of the new observatory is to be a place where all Calgarians can look deeper into the cosmos.

Simon Poole, the current president of the Calgary Centre, said the observatory will host free events open to amateur astronomers and first-time star-gazers alike.

"It's critical that we attract a diverse array of Calgarians and make it inclusive for everyone," he said. "The idea is to generate a whole new generation of students who are excited about STEM, especially reaching out to the under-represented groups."

While the planned observatory will be under the haze of suburban light pollution, Poole says it will still offer great views of the night sky with binoculars, telescopes and the naked eye.

"With the telescopes and everything set up, you'll be able to see the planets, see galaxies, nebulae, star clusters," Poole said.

If shovels hit the ground this summer for construction, it's possible the observatory could open in 2024.

LISTEN | Past RASC president explains the group's plans for the new observatory:

However, considering all the boxes that still need to be ticked, not to mention possible supply chain or construction disruptions, an opening date is difficult to predict.

"It's tough to put a date on bureaucracy," Poole added.

Anniversary year 

The Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada was established in 1958, and this Sunday will mark its 65th year in existence.

One of the centre's legacies is the Centennial Planetarium building in downtown Calgary, which now houses a modern art museum, Contemporary Calgary.

Submitted by Robyn Foret
Submitted by Robyn Foret

The centre's founder, Walter Stilwell, suggested the city build the planetarium to mark the 1967 Canadian centennial, with the idea the building would be associated with the arrival of the space age. 

Another of the centre's legacies is the Wilson Coulee Observatory in De Winton, roughly 35 kilometres south of Calgary. The facility, which is only capable of hosting small groups, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

"Ralph Klein himself was at that opening in 1983," Poole said, highlighting the connection between that observatory and the one yet-to-be-built in the park that bears the name of the former Calgary mayor and Alberta premier.

Bright futures 

For Foret, who's spent more than a decade at the society, organizations such as the Calgary Centre are like what minor hockey leagues are to the NHL.

NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Space Telescope Science Institute
NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Space Telescope Science Institute

He noted, for instance, Sara Seager, the MacArthur "genius grant" winner and MIT professor known for her work on extrasolar planets, was once a girl who attended a RASC event in Toronto. 

That single outing to peer into the night sky sparked her interest in space, setting the trajectory for a sparkling scientific career. In 2020, Seager, a society member, was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada.

In their work bringing a new public observatory to Calgary, Foret and the Calgary Centre are following the famous words of another pioneering Canadian astronomer, Helen Sawyer Hogg.

According to Foret, those guiding words are: "The stars belong to everyone."