April 5th: Astronomy in Canada Past, Present and Future


365DaysDate: April 5, 2009


Title: Astronomy in Canada Past, Present and Future

Podcaster: Alexander W. Hobson

Organization: The National Research Council of Canada: http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada: http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/index_eng.asp
Canadian Space Agency: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/default.asp
Royal Astronomical Society of Canada: http://www.rasc.ca/

Description: Astronomy in Canada, Past, Present and Future, and dives into the early history of astronomy in Canada from the early indigenous people using astronomy to our modern day teaching and Canadian built astronomical space craft.

Bio: Alexander W. Hobson: I am a 49 year old manager, I work for a radio and television company in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and have a recording studio at home to work from. I am married and have twin 13 year old boys who love the night sky.

I have been interested in astronomy since the age of 10. I own a small telescope and imaging equipment, read astronomy related books, and listen to astronomy podcasts on a regular basis including Astronomy Cast, Slacker Astronomy and of course 365 Days of Astronomy.

Today’s Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Stephen Winter. Thank you to all the volunteers working on the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcasts.


Welcome to 365 Days of Astronomy and the podcast for April 5th 2009. I am your host for this episode, Alexander Hobson, an amateur astronomy enthusiast from Oakville Ontario Canada, and I’ll be talking about Canada’s roll in astronomy. Past, present and future.

Today, Canada has taken a leading roll in astronomy, space work, and studies, with dedicated people who participate in, and work on cutting edge research and technology.

We have a great tradition in Astronomy starting with thousands of years of indigenous people of the far North and Southern regions of Canada, using the stars to navigate and for monitoring the passage of time and seasons.

European Astronomy was brought to Canada when explorers were trying to find the North West Passage to India from Europe. They would bring, telescopes, astronomical knowledge, and of course, astronomers to Canada. Among some of these explorers were Jesuit missionaries who would spend many years in the country and introduce Astronomy among other sciences to the early settlers.

Famous explorers like John Cabot, Samuel de Champlain and Jacques Cartier recorded astronomical events for us including Cartier re-finding the mouth of the St Lawrence river during the Persied Meteor shower of 1535.

However, it wasn’t until 1618, that the first record of significant astronomical observations were recorded in Canada by Jesuits who sent their reports back to Rome about comets and eclipses.

Then in 1634, Jean Bourdon, the Engineer-in-Chief and Land Surveyor for the New France colony in Quebec, was given the task of studying the astronomy of the area. The function of astronomy during the time of the early settlers was to draw up accurate geographic maps and to tell time precisely. He became a wealthy land owner and was noted officially as the first Canadian to own a telescope, a gift from the Jesuits in 1646, and is the first officially recognized person in Canada to teach astronomy, in his hydrography courses at the College of Quebec in the 1630’s.

It’s hard to pinpoint the first observatory in Canada, because there are several records of astronomical teaching in Canada as mentioned earlier, in Quebec and also at the Fortress of Louisburg (Loosburg) in Cape Breton, but no official records of an actual observatory can be found, though we do know through records that teachers were using equipment to survey the sky and presumably, they would have set up observatories. It wasn’t until 1765, when official records indicate an observatory was built at Castle Frederick, at Falmouth, (Falmith) Nova Scotia.

By the mid 1800’s, many more observatories were being established at universities across the country, including some which survive to this day.

So, how did Canada become a modern leader in astronomical teaching and research? Well it started with members of the Royal Astronomical Society which originated as the Astronomical and Physical Society of Toronto. One important leader in the club was Professor Clarence Augustus Chant who established a separate astronomy department at the University of Toronto in 1904.

At roughly the same time, Dr. William F. King, Canada’s first Chief Astronomer was also persuading the federal government to establish the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa which became Canada’s first centre of astrophysical research and was equipped with a 15 inch refractor. Unfortunately by 1910 they realized to further any research, they would need a bigger scope and a better area of seeing. This prompted one of the astronomers, Dr. John Stanley Plaskett, to rally for a larger telescope at a better location and through his efforts, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory was opened near Victoria, B.C. with a 1.8 m telescope in 1918. It became one of the largest research instruments anywhere for several decades and Dr. Plaskett’s work on our Galaxy rotation brought world-wide recognition.

Meanwhile, Dr. Chant was instrumental in seeing a major observatory established at the University of Toronto. The David Dunlap Observatory opened in 1935 and housed the second-largest telescope in the world at the time, at 1.88 meters with one of the first Pyrex telescope mirrors. Among other firsts, in 1972, Charles Thomas Bolton, one of the observatory’s astronomers, used the Dunlap telescope to discover Cygnus X-1, the first black hole ever identified. Spectroscopy and photometry were extensively carried out there, until the sale of the property in 2008.

So, we had observatories spread out across the country from East to West and universities specializing in Astronomy and Astrophysics. This set the stage for future studies, research, observations and exploration.

Let’s not forget the other astronomy though, radio astronomy. At end of the Second World War surplus radar equipment became available. In Ottawa, Arthur E. Covington studied solar radio emissions on equipment he put together from this surplus, thus starting radio astronomy in Canada. Later, 2 radio observatories were established in Algonquin Park, Ontario and at The Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton, B.C. . They were eventually linked to perform the first continent-wide long baseline radio interferometry. One of their significant accomplishments was to measure the size of quasars.

The old Dominion Observatory in Ottawa was eventually closed and government astronomy became the responsibility of the National Research Council, carried out at the new Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics located near Victoria British Columbia, and named for Nobel laureate Dr. Gerhard Herzberg.

With funding cuts in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, it became too expensive for many institutions to keep up financially with cutting edge technologies, especially large telescopes. Most institutions started to cooperate in shared ventures. There are several international observatories which Canada shares in. Three of these are located on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii. They are the Canada-France-Hawaii observatory, opened in 1979 with it’s 3.6 meter telescope. The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, with an antenna diameter of 15 meters, operating in the sub millimeter wavelength region of the spectrum, and the Gemini North Observatory with it’s giant 8 meter mirror.

In Chili, South America, there is the Gemini South telescope at an even larger 8.1 meters and the Cosmic Background imager which is a special-purpose radio telescope designed to study the cosmic microwave background radiation from the early universe.

The Astronomy Technology Research Group in Victoria British Columbia have installed instruments and software for some of these major telescopes around the world, including the Gemini North and South Telescopes, the Canada- France- Hawaii Telescope and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. They have also recently helped in the design and manufacturing of very high frequency receivers for the array antennae of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array Radio Telescope Project, and work on the Thirty Meter Telescope Project, both of which will operate in several years time.

Two other international collaborative efforts are the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto, established in 1982 and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory with its new Snolab at a depth of 2,070 meters below the surface in a mine near Sudbury, Ontario.

Canada has also contributed knowledge and resources to exciting space based studies and craft. One collaborative project includes a space based radio telescope with Russia called Radioastron, which is scheduled to launch near the end of this year.
We have our own microsatellite called, MOST, which studies variable stars from space and we’ve gone to Mars with the Canadian built meteorological station on the Phoenix lander. We also have plans to send an exclusively Canadian mission to Mars called the Northern Light mission. We’ve worked on many other space craft, including the Canadarm on the shuttles and space station!

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, scheduled to launch this year, will fly with 2 Canadian made instruments, SPIRE a bolometer “camera”, and HIFI , a high resolution spectrometer. We will also have the NEOSSat, a small Canadian satellite, scheduled to launch early in 2010, which will find and track near earth objects which approach the Earth from orbits close to the sun.

As part of an international team of astronomers, some of our recent discoveries include capturing the first images of another solar system. Our long-range plans for the future include participation in the Next Generation Space Telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the Square Kilometer Array for radio astronomy.

Amateurs have also contributed much to astronomy in Canada and are serious about promoting astronomy while also having fun. Nothing shows this more than the Star parties listed across the country with one of the largest being Starfest presented by the North York Astronomical Association near Mount Forest, Ontario. This event attracts upwards of 1,000 or more people every year.

There are hundreds of Canadian Astronomical websites including local clubs, astronomy information and teaching. We even have our own magazine called Sky News, edited by Terence Dickinson who’s ‘Night Watch’ book, now in it’s third printing. It’s one of the most recognized guides to amateur astronomy ever written. There are also many other newsletters for professionals and amateurs available on the internet.

For more information about Canadian Astronomy, The National Research Council of Canada has excellent information on their website. Also check out The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada which supports tens of thousands of students, post doctoral fellows and universities undertaking cutting edge research. For our space programs check out the Canadian Space agency on the net.

It’s not all Mounties, maple syrup and igloo’s up here in the true North, so the next time you think of Canadian Astronomy, put away your toques eh, and think about our wonderful history, dedicated people and world class facilities involved in cutting edge astronomy.

For Canada and the international year of astronomy podcast, I’m Alexander Hobson wishing you clear skies and great seeing!

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.

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2 Responses to April 5th: Astronomy in Canada Past, Present and Future

  1. Roy Bishop April 5, 2009 at 7:26 pm #

    “April 5th: Astronomy in Canada Past, Present and Future”:
    Impressive, concise, and remarkably complete. Great job, Alexander Hobson!

    Minor points: Chili should be Chile.
    meter (as in unit of length) should be metre. Same with kilometre, etc. Only the USA does not use the international spelling, and despite 1776, the USA still uses British units (foot, yard, mile, etc.)

  2. Alexander W. Hobson April 20, 2009 at 9:32 am #

    Thanks Roy, your feedback is much appreciated! Spell-check had a meltdown and changed the words, but I do have a great Chili recipe…

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