Bringing Heaven to Earth
U of A Observatory offers the public a peek at the night sky
Just after sunset, Jupiter is high in the sky. Red and white bands on the gas giant are clearly visible through the telescope, along with a line of moons. Sharon Morsink peers through the telescope, making adjustments before members of the public head out to see the planet through the lens.
Since the late 1970s, a group of students and professors at the University of Alberta have made a weekly journey to set up telescopes and bring an understanding of astronomy to the general public. “The planets are often really amazing,” Morsink says. “The Orion Nebula looks gorgeous through these telescopes. It’s been looking really good.”
Morsink is an associate professor of physics at the University of Alberta and the unofficial director of the observatory, the “woman everyone listens to.” She oversees the volunteers who operate the telescopes and show off the amazing things in the night sky.
Three domes atop the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science house the massive telescopes. Noon-hour solar observations take place on Thursdays during the summer, with intermittent hours in the evening posted to both the observatory’s website and social media pages. Every Thursday from September to April, no matter the weather, volunteers set up the telescopes and prep the meeting space for the weekly observing hours, with start times varying between 7 and 9 p.m.
This year, the observatory added scheduled lectures at the start of every evening, a way to ensure there’s something to bring an audience on even the most overcast of nights. Professors from the faculty come to speak about any number of astronomy topics, plus more general talks, speaking to as many as 50 people every week.
“We started doing public talks this year,” Morsink says. “We needed something happening when it was cloudy.”