It was in the stars: Observatory becomes national historic site

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, a monument to Canada’s honoured place in the study of astronomy, has been recognized as a national historic site.

That puts the 92-year-old landmark on shared footing with such other local fixtures as St. Ann’s Academy, Emily Carr House and the Butchart Gardens.

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Designation as a national historic site symbolizes a special place in Canada’s cultural heritage and emphasizes a commitment to preserving the past.

“It’s a very appropriate recognition,” observatory director Jim Hesser said.

“It’s an exciting day, we’re very pleased. The observatory has played such an important role in the development of Canada’s world-renowned expertise in astronomy and astrophysics.”

The location of the observatory, which sits 227 metres above sea level on Little Saanich Mountain, was chosen because of the low cloud cover and even temperatures in the area. Construction took place from 1914-18.

The facility was a world leader from the outset.

“For a brief period, right after it opened, it was the largest operating telescope in the world,” Hesser said.

“That was back in the second half of 1918.”

The telescope was designed and built by founding director John Plaskett, and is still in service today.

It was officially named the Plaskett Telescope in 1993.

Plaskett’s creation was quickly supplanted by the Hooker Telescope at California’s Mount Wilson Observatory.

But after a copy of the Victoria telescope was built in Richmond Hill, Ont., Canada was destined to have two of the world’s three largest operating telescopes until the late 1940s.

Hesser said the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory’s two research-grade telescopes are modest in size by today’s standards.

“But the observatory is very scientifically productive and the Hertzberg Institute of Astrophysics, which is now headquartered at the site of the observatory, supports Canada’s involvement in the major international facilities.”

He said the special designation for the observatory comes at an appropriate time, on the heels of the International Year of Astronomy (2009).

“We’re now embarked on creating the legacies of the International Year of Astronomy.

“It’s very fitting that it comes now.”

The observatory is part of the National Research Council of Canada.

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