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Cold War era space camera moves into refurbished Newbrook observatory

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Volunteers in the northern Alberta hamlet of Newbrook have moved a rare artifact from the Cold War into an old observatory, with the hopes of turning the site into a museum. Sarah Ryan reports – Sep 14, 2020

A space camera designed to take pictures of meteors streaking across the sky in the 1950s has been pulled out of storage and onto the site where it will soon be showcased to the public.

The camera is nearly 70 years old and weighs 6,500 pounds. Back in the day, there were two in Alberta: one in Newbrook and one in Meanook.

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

“The camera that was here took the first photograph ever of Sputnik.

“The Americans needed that as proof that the Russians were beating them in the space race,” explained Newbrook Historical Society treasurer, Brian Barnes.

Sputnik was the original space satellite, launched by the Soviet Union. The photo, proof of Sputnik’s existence, pushed the United States to ramp up its own space program during the Cold War.

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Click to play video 'Alberta hamlet highlights Cold War observatory and camera' Alberta hamlet highlights Cold War observatory and camera
Alberta hamlet highlights Cold War observatory and camera – Jun 25, 2019

Barnes and seven other dedicated volunteers spent the last few years working to bring the historical camera back into operation.

“There are still meteors flying around so hopefully when it’s dark and people are here, they’ll be able to see the meteors,” he said.

The Newbrook observatory closed down in the 1970s, as other satellites in space were able to take pictures of meteors. It fell into disrepair, but once the historical society found out the original Meanook camera was being donated to them, they set to work repairing it.

“On the observatory, they put new siding, new paint, they’ve got the sliding roof working,” Barnes said.

On Monday, the camera was taken out of storage, driven down the highway and lifted by a crane into place.

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“It’s a big step and I’m just so happy that it’s finally happening,” said Shirley Vice, the society’s director.

But there is still work to be done. The volunteers need help figuring out how to put the camera back together and learn exactly it works.

Read more: University team sends first Alberta-made satellite into space: ‘It was perfect’

Some parts may pose a challenge to source, including the photographic plates and film, which were made by Kodak. The company no longer exists.

Instead, Barnes is hoping a new device will allow the group to capture the images digitally.

Then, once everything is working, the society plans to turn the site into a museum for things like school field trips.

“We can use this as an educational tool for the children. It’s history,” Vice said.

The volunteers also hope it will become a destination for international space and camera enthusiasts, as well as academics.

Read more: Cree names submitted by Alberta teacher for planet and star win national contest

“We need to bring Newbrook back onto the map as a place for people to visit,” Barnes said.

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“Getting tourists back here would mean quite a bit. It might mean the reopening of a restaurant, for one thing, our little motel might get back on track,” Vice explained.

There’s already been interest from lecturers at Athabasca University, as well as the Canadian Astronomical Society.

Vice is hopeful the camera will be up and running in the summer of 2021.

Click to play video 'Alberta hamlet highlights Cold War observatory and camera' Alberta hamlet highlights Cold War observatory and camera
Alberta hamlet highlights Cold War observatory and camera – Jun 25, 2019