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Sci-Fi Night at the Rothney Observatory blasts off

By Scott Strasser, October 4 2016 —

About 15 kilometres south of Calgary lies one of the University of Calgary’s best-kept secrets — unless you’re an astrophysicist, that is.

Founded in 1972, the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory (RAO) boasts some of the most impressive astronomy equipment in Canada. The RAO’s 1.8 metre ARCT dome telescope is currently the largest operational telescope in Canada.

On Oct. 1, the RAO hosted Sci-Fi Night — an open house event that allowed the general public to sample the facility’s telescopes and learn about astronomy.

“[It’s] a chance to invite the general public to an observatory to get a chance to look through telescopes, see what’s up in the sky and remind them that the stars are over their head. People who live in the city are buried underneath light all the time,” RAO director Philip Langill says.

Located near the hamlet of Priddis, the RAO’s location outside Calgary’s city-limits makes for better stargazing conditions.

Even though the RAO is privately owned by the U of C, the observatory hosts open house events like Sci-Fi Night roughly once a month.

Langill says `open houses are a way for the U of C to show off the RAO to the public. He says the observatory is the best equipped university-run observatory in Canada.

“We’ve got some amazing telescopes, detectors and equipment. It’s nice to give people a chance to see research-grade equipment up close. And basically, to get people excited about science and astronomy,” he says.

While around 300 people attended Sci-Fi Night, organizers said open houses have seen as many as 800 attendees before.

Langill, who is also a senior instructor with the U of C’s department of physics and astronomy, says the open houses are a good way for the RAO to educate the public on astronomy and astrophysics.

“From an outreach point of view, there’s no other U of C entity that does outreach as much as we do,” says Langill. “Our numbers here have been growing steadily over the years. We get many thousands of people here every year. That’s one of the things I’m very proud of.”

To go with the open house’s theme, Sci-Fi Night included readings from members of the Imaginative Fiction Writers’ Association, who read excerpts from science fiction stories they had written.

Langill also gave a talk at the event decked out in a Star Trek flight suit. He spoke about recent developments in astronomy and astrophysics, including the discovery of Pluto’s atmosphere and NASA’s experiment to successfully re-land a rocket on Earth that had already been launched into space.

“As a kid, people talk about what the future is going to look like,” Langill says. “Then you grow up and think, ‘did it turn out the way things were predicted?’ I’m going to talk about what’s been going on in astronomy and if it’s as good as it was supposed to have been, based on the hype of 30 years ago.”

The RAO’s next open house takes place on Oct. 15. It will have a nuclear science theme.

For more information, visit ucalgary.ca/rao

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