Public tours of the Plaskett telescope will end as public outreach shuts down after Saturday at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich.

Public tours of the Plaskett telescope will end as public outreach shuts down after Saturday at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich.

Centre of the Universe goes dark Saturday

Saanich can no longer lay claim to being the centre of the universe as astronomy outreach programs end

Saanich can no longer lay claim to being the centre of the universe, as the educational astronomy facility atop Little Saanich Mountain that bears that very name closes it doors tomorrow.

Centre of the Universe, the National Research Council’s interpretive centre at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, lost its annual $250,000 funding from the federal government in June, and Saturday marks its last offering public education and tours.

Many people are optimistic, however, that the closure will only be temporary.

“When the centre was first built, the plan was to have it run by a non-profit organization,” said Greg Fahlman, director general of the NRC’s national astronomy and astrophysics programs, based at the Saanich observatory.

“What are the prospects now for something like that? For a community-based non-profit organization that takes a hand in operating these facilities on behalf of the community? We’ll we’re not too sure how something like that can be put together, but it’s something that’s being looked at anyway.”

Two employees will lose their jobs as a result of the closure and one will be reassigned, the NRC says.

“It’s got to do with financial constraints,” said Charles Drouin, spokesman for the NRC in Ottawa. “We do exercises that look at all the activities and programs, and rejig them. It was a tough decision, but one we felt we had to do.”

The Centre of the Universe facility – which houses historical artifacts like the original 1.8-metre mirror from the Plaskett Telescope and runs historical tours, multimedia shows, and youth programs – costs about $32,000 to operate and $245,000 in employee wages, and brings in about $47,000 per year in revenue, giving the NRC a sum savings of $230,000 per year.

As of Sunday, the national historic site will have no public outreach, and locals and visitors will no longer be able to tour the Plaskett Telescope, in operation since May 6, 1918. Between 8,000 and 10,000 people – many of them school kids – visited the national historic site each year since the Centre of the Universe opened 12 years ago.

Saanich South MLA Lana Popham said that while the provincial government doesn’t have financial responsibility over the NRC site, she said it has a stake in the closure, as the public school system regularly took advantage of programming offered there.

“What concerns me most is we’re shutting the doors on a very valuable educational resource. A lot of school programs go through there,” Popham said. “There’s such value in hands-on learning. We can all tap into the Internet and see some of this stuff on a computer, but for students going up and seeing equipment with their own eyes does leave a lasting impression. It’s hard to put a price on education like that.”

Popham said tomorrow’s closure doesn’t spell the end of public outreach for astronomy in Victoria. She’s working with Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca MP Randall Garrison on a petition to restore funding to the centre.

“What we’ve tried to do … is raise enough awareness to find another option to look at if (federal) funding doesn’t come back. I don’t think closing it down permanently is an option. Being creative and figuring out another way to run it is something I’d be interested in,” she said.

Tomorrow’s final public offering at Centre of the Universe will be business as usual, Fahlman said.

“It’s a show and tell day – people can come up and go into the exhibits, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada will be there showing the public the sky through their telescopes, there may be tours into the Plaskett telescope, and we’ll have some lectures on astronomy in the auditorium,” he said.

The Centre opens at 3:30 p.m. and will close late into the night, after dark.

Fahlman says he anticipates there will be a lot of people in attendance Saturday, and asks that visitors be patient.

“The observatory is a landmark in Victoria, you can see it pretty much from anywhere in the city, and people are just naturally curious: ‘what the heck is that thing?'” Fahlman said.

“Most astronomers, most scientists are more than eager to go on at great lengths at how exciting, how interesting the science is, and that’s the thing that is disconcerting to us: that connection to the community has been disrupted.”

– with files from Edward Hill