The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory has been scanning the night skies southwest of Calgary for decades, looking for the tiniest dots of light that might unlock some secret of the universe.
Next year will mark its 50th anniversary. Dr. Phil Langill, a professor at the university and director of the observatory, couldn’t be prouder.
“It’s one of the top university-run observatories in Canada,” Langill said. ”We have a gigantic suite of research-graded equipment and detectors. We have beautiful skies to be able to do some interesting scientific work. It’s a playground for our students to learn the nuts and bolts of astronomy.
“It’s just really, really fun to be here.”
The observatory has three experiment-graded telescopes that scan the skies on clear nights. They are already programmable through the internet, which allows students in China to access them for their own research.
But Langill says the observatory is poised for a technological breakthrough.
“Now we are trying to make our telescopes robotic, which means that they have a mind of their own. They know when it’s clear. The dome will open up, the camera will take pictures all night long.
“And then the computer will process the data so that when the astronomer wakes up in the morning and rubs their eyes, their data is all ready for them on their computer. It’s a pretty spectacular thing.”
The Baker-Nunn telescope was donated to the university after becoming obsolete in its original purpose of tracking Russian satellites for the U.S. Army during the Cold War. All these years later, it’s become cutting edge once again.
“The Baker-Nunn telescope is part of a robotic global network of telescopes now,” Langill said. “Still got a few bugs to iron out, but it’s working sweet and I would really like a lot of the telescopes around here to have the same capability.”
The university has built a solid reputation in physics and astronomy, helping to research the celebrity phenomenon known as STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement).
“People are scratching their heads over Steve, trying to figure out what’s going on with that,” Langill said.
“My colleagues in the department — it’s one of their favourite things to talk about.”
Researchers are also busy tracking down meteorites that land in the province.
But Langill says his heart is in the stars, and modern technology is allowing him to search the universe better and faster than ever.
“What used to take hours or days, astronomers are doing in less than a second.
“There is so much data being collected these days because they (telescopes) are so sensitive.”
And the prospect of having a robot to observe weather patterns and seize opportunities to observe and record the minutia of a vase and complex universe that spans distance and time could lead to new discoveries.
“We do things here that are very unique in Calgary and in Canada,” Langill said.
“We do have these wonderful telescopes that allow us to study the universe. We have the capability here of contributing to science and to discovery.”