Summer opening in the works for Centre of the Universe, observatory

The observatory at the Centre of the Universe in Saanich, closed after federal budget cuts last year, will reopen to stargazers for a special event next month and seven nights over the summer.

Volunteers with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in Victoria will open the Centre of the Universe and the observatory on May 3, from 8 to 11 p.m., for International Astronomy Day.

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Still in the planning stage is the return of Saturday night stargazing for the public, tentatively scheduled for July 5, 12 and 19, Aug. 2, 9 and 16, and Sept. 6.

The National Research Council Canada shut the centre’s doors last August, citing financial constraints. The interpretive centre, which opened in 2001, was an educational arm of the adjacent Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on West Saanich Road.

“We’re very excited about being able to reopen the observatory,” said Lauri Roche, a volunteer with the Royal Astronomical Society. “This is a national historic building that we would love to again present to the public and have open.”

Roche said the stargazing nights are still under discussion but the society is optimistic. “The NRC has not given the go-ahead as yet,” she said. “We hope to see something positive happening within the month.”

The federal government’s research and technology organization had pledged to preserve some form of public access through volunteers on weekends and during special events.

“Astronomy is just so important in the whole scientific realm and we want to be able to have the public come back up to the hill. We’re really happy to be able to start that process again,” Roche said.

She credited Saanich South NDP MLA Lana Popham for organizing a stakeholders discussion in November, during which working groups for a short- and long-term vision for the observatory were formed.

In turn, Popham acknowledged those with the Royal Astronomical Society, the University of Victoria and the National Research Council who put in the long hours over the past six months to bring back popular events.

“This is a fantastic beginning to the next phase of public engagement and support for the Saanich observatory,” Popham said, in an email to organizers.

During International Astronomy Day, both the centre and observatory will be open, free to the public. Volunteers will offer tours of the observatory and stargazing through the Plaskett telescope.

On the summer stargazing nights, just the observatory will be open. Society members will have their telescopes setup for public gazing on the deck and there will be tours of the observatory. The Plaskett telescope will also be operational.

Don Moffatt, a University of Victoria astronomy graduate and business analyst, is the chairman of the short-term working group that got the Saturday night viewings back on track.

“The way the community came together over eight months to partially restore the 95 year old tradition of outreach at the observatory is a reflection of how deeply unpopular the decision to close the Centre of the Universe was,” Moffatt said, in an email.

Also planned for the centre in July and August are youth daycamps run by the non-profit group Science Venture.

Oak Bay-Gordon Head Green MLA Andrew Weaver contacted the group last August after the closure of the observatory.

With registration starting next week, there are eight weeks of one-week camps are for students from Grade 3-8 and are meant to inspire youth and deepen their knowledge of astronomy, physics and space technology.

The National Research Council is helping with the transition of the building’s operation over the next several years, including providing public access to the building without fees, covering basic operating costs and contributing to municipal taxes.

The facility had cost an average of $310,000 a year to run and brought in between $50,000 and $60,000 in revenue.

charnett@timescolonist.com

For more information on summer camps: scienceventure.ca

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