Volunteers hope Cold War observatory and camera can put Alberta hamlet back on the map

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A group of dedicated volunteers at the Newbrook Historical Society in Alberta is hard at work refurbishing an observatory and meteor camera from the 1950s. Sarah Kraus explains – Jun 25, 2019

A group of dedicated volunteers at the Newbrook Historical Society in Alberta is hard at work refurbishing an observatory and meteor camera from the 1950s.

“We have a treasure. We have a piece of Alberta history coming back to Alberta,” exclaimed Shirley Vice, one of the directors of the historical society.

Vice’s excitement is contagious as she looks over a decades-old meteor camera.

“The camera itself is fantastic,” she said. “Just to see it — the size of it! You wouldn’t believe it.”

It weighs more than 6,500 pounds and just recently completed a trip across Canada to its original home, north of Edmonton.

“This camera was originally made in 1951 in the [United] States. There were two of them that came into Alberta: one in Newbrook and one in Meanook,” explained society treasurer Brian Barnes.
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The cameras were designed to take pictures of meteors because it was thought those photos could help scientists understand the properties of Earth’s upper atmosphere.

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“This area gets a lot of meteors coming,” Barnes said. “That’s why they put them here. And also because it’s away from the lights of the city.”

But a handful of years later, the U.S. military tasked the observatory with looking for something other than meteors.

“It was the time of the Cold War and there were no spacecraft at the time,” Barnes explained. “The first one that went up was the Russian Sputnik and this camera was the first to take a picture of Sputnik as it came across the North American continent.”

That sighting alarmed Americans, who thought they were superior to the Russians when it came to technology and science. The space race started soon after.

“To take something like this and aim it at space, and be able to get pictures from space at that period of life? That was way back in the 1950s,” Vice observed.

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With satellites up in space, the need for meteor photos disappeared and the Newbrook observatory shut down in 1970.

The camera from Meanook was sent to a conservatory in Ottawa, where it would remain until 1987.

At that point, it was sent to a scrap metal yard before being rescued by a group of camera enthusiasts in the area. The Ontario Schmidt Camera Club attempted to get the camera to work, but was unsuccessful.

The camera sat in storage until just recently, when the Newbrook Historical Society chased it down and had it donated and transported back to northern Alberta.

The plan is for it to go into the Newbrook observatory.

“We’re going to refurbish the whole observatory and once it’s refurbished, we’re going to put this camera in, clean it up and get it working,” Barnes said.

Barnes and Vice are hopeful the observatory and meteor camera can put the hamlet back on the map by drawing in tourists, students on field trips and university researchers. They’re applying for grants and plan to fundraise to bring the pieces of history back to life.

“Frankly, I didn’t know anything about it,” Vice said. “Even in school we didn’t know anything about it. That’s why I’m so anxious for the children now to learn about it. I want to learn about it.”

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To get the camera up and working, the Newbrook Historical Society volunteers will need to find someone that can make a specialized film.

They’re hoping the restorations to the observatory will be complete in September, so they can move the camera into place before the snow flies.

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