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U of C observatory opens doors to public for summer stargazing

By Jason Herring, July 23 2105 —

The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory (RAO) will open its doors to the public for late-night stargazing sessions this summer as part of their annual Milky Way Nights event.

The RAO is a research and teaching facility run by the University of Calgary’s physics and astronomy department. But from July 23–26 and August 28–30, the RAO is inviting the public to take advantage of their equipment and learn more about the night sky.

The event takes place once a month, coinciding with the new moon so observers can have clear views of the night skies. Ambient moonlight, as well as excess light from towns and cities, creates light pollution which can outshine distant stars and make them undetectable to regular telescopes.

The event focuses on observation rather than lectures, although students and volunteers will be at the observatory to answer any questions the stargazers may have about the cosmos.

RAO education specialist Jennifer Howse says she hopes the public will take advantage of the opportunity to watch the stars in a professional environment.

“The students and volunteers are very knowledgeable about the sky, so this is a great chance to ask your astronomy questions. We do our best to provide an answer to anything you have always wondered about the universe,” Howse says. “The wow of seeing a planet, nebula or galaxy through a telescope is an amazing experience.”

Howse says she hopes the event encourages people to learn more about space.

Observers can expect to see planetary nebula, globular clusters and distant galaxies at the event. During Milky Way Nights, Saturn  will be observable, additionally, the August event occurs during the peak of the Perseids meteor shower.

The RAO is located about 25 kilometres southwest of Calgary to minimize light pollution. Howse says one of the RAO’s main objective is to fight light pollution in the city.

“Light pollution abatement is a very important objective for the observatory. We have received a grant from the Calgary Foundation to work towards education regarding light pollution,” Howse says. “We’re working with all levels of government to create legislation to keep the skies around the observatory dark.”

Entrance to the event is by donation. The money raised goes towards school programs that bring students to the observatory to learn about astronomy. Visitors are welcome to drop by the observatory anytime between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

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