Victoria stargazers could once again be looking to the skies at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich, thanks to a tentative deal to reopen Centre of the Universe on Saturday nights beginning in April 2014.
The National Research Council, operator of the Herzberg research centre and Dominion observatory, has committed to reopen public outreach and to have someone available to operate the historic Plaskett telescope on Saturday nights for the public, either by an NRC staff member or a trained volunteer. The details have yet to be worked out.
Gregory Fahlman, director general of the NRC Herzberg astronomy astrophysics programs, said the intention has always been to open the Centre of the Universe building for the public, it’s just the “how” which needs to be worked out.
“There’s a sense … that a plan had been made, but I would say it’s more like the outlines of a plan. There is a plan to get a plan,” Fahlman said. “At least there is a consensus as to how this large group can move forward.”
NRC has committed to maintaining the building and making it available to community groups at a nominal cost.
“Everybody recognized that the draw is the (Plaskett) telescope, the observatory,” said Nelson Walker, president of the Victoria branch of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
Volunteers from the society, who are at the facility regularly on Saturday nights using their own telescopes, will potentially take on public outreach roles, Walker said.
“The NRC professional staff of the Centre of the Universe is who did that, and they’re not there,” he said. “We feel bad about the staff leaving. We don’t fancy just stepping into their shoes, but who knows. That’s what we’re discussing.”
A tentative plan emerged from a meeting on Saturday at the observatory. NRC vice-president Dan Wayner, flew in from Ottawa to speak with about 30 local stakeholders, including University of Victoria professors, astronomers, educators, parents and others.
“(NRC) want to work with us. They said they will do everything that they can to make sure that works well,” said Lana Popham, MLA for Saanich South.
The Centre of the Universe houses interactive educational displays and historic astronomy artifacts. It was closed to the public in August, due to funding cuts from the federal government. The Plaskett telescope was also closed to public tours.
Reopening the centre would happen without any direct funding from the federal government. Closing the centre saved the NRC’s $900-million budget about $230,000 per year, mainly from staff wages.
Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca MP Randall Garrison tabled a petition in November with nearly 2,000 signatures calling to reopen the centre. The government has until February 2014 to respond to the petition.
“We knew probably by the end of September (the federal government) was a tree not worth barking up,” Popham said. “So instead of looking at this as an opportunity lost, we had to start looking at it as a new opportunity.”
Science Venture, a non-profit organization at UVic, has also presented a six-month pilot project it wants to run with outreach for children, including workshops for school groups and spring and summer break programs.
“Potentially, if we can get that going, kids will have access again as early as February,” Popham said.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 people – many of them school kids – have visited the national historic site each year since the Centre of the Universe opened 12 years ago.
Without NRC funding, Saturday night astronomy events can now be advertised, something which was not possible under the old model.
Two working groups have been struck to help the facility move forward. The short term group will be working towards having the facility open for Saturday nights by April. The long-term group will be looking at the overall future of the observatory.
Popham said a Friends of the Observatory charity will also likely be necessary to organize volunteers and fundraise to help keep the facility going.
Wayner has also committed to fly out again for the first Saturday night the facility is reopened for stargazing.
“He knows it’s important and he wants to experience it too,” Popham said. “The community was so incredibly disappointed last summer. (NRC) hadn’t expected such a public backlash from closing it and I think they’re inspired by our community.”
More information is available at saanichobservatory.ca.