February 11, 2015 1:40 pm
Updated: February 11, 2015 1:53 pm

Quebec’s Mont-Megantic observatory to close in April

Observatoire Mont Megantic is slated to close on April 1 due to lack of funding.

Canadian Press Images-Mario Beauregard
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TORONTO – One of the few large Canadian observatories still in operation — the Observatoire du Mont-Megantic (OMM) — announced on Wednesday that it would be closing its doors on April 1.

The announcement comes after years of funding difficulties for the observatory that is run by the University of Montreal and Laval University.

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In 2009, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada cut its subsidy to the observatory and cancelled its $325,000 contribution to the observatory under the Harper government’s new focus on applied science.

At the time, it was thought that the loss of funding would result in the closure of the observatory. The Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions stepped in with funding that ended in 2011. Then the Canada Foundation for Innovation saved the day, but that funding ends in March.

It’s not just federal funding that has contributed to the operating costs of $500,000. As the funding was cut over the years, both universities stepped in to top up funds. The provincial government has since slashed funding to universities in an effort to balance its budget.

“The universities get less and less money, and of course, it trickles down to the observatory at some point,” said Robert Lamontagne, the executive director of the OMM.

OMM is the second Canadian observatory to close in recent years: in 2008, the University of Toronto sold the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill, Ontario, to Metrus Development Inc. Today, its doors are still open, run by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Toronto Centre.

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In Victoria, B.C. the Centre of the Universe Interpretive Centre — part of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory —  closed its doors in August 2013. In 2014, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada volunteers held public viewing nights several times over the summer.

Unlike many older observatories in Canada — and really, around the world — light pollution wasn’t diminishing OMM’s observations: the telescope lies within a dark sky reserve.

“From a science point of view, the observatory was still performing very well,” Lamontagne said.

Specifically, it was used to train astronomers and testing equipment.

The 1.6-metre telescope made the OMM the fourth largest in Canada. The David Dunlap Observatory, is the largest at 1.88 metres.

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Even with the closure of the OMM, professional astronomers still have access to international telescopes — much larger than any in Canada — that are funded by the government, including the Canada-Hawaii-France Telescope in Hawaii and the Gemini Observatories in Hawaii and Chile.

“We can still do most of our science elsewhere,” Lamontagne said. “The strongest impact will be on graduate students’ education. It’s a lot easier if you have access to a professional telescope…so they could be trained properly and go on to use larger telescopes.”

As for what the future holds, Lamontagne said it’s a wait-and-see. After all, they’ve been down this road before.

“It’s going to take a few days for the dust to settle down and we can see where we can go from here. We really don’t know.”

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