End of an Era

The final night was inevitable – the last night we could operate the public Observing Deck at the science centre where I work. You see, we’re building a new science centre in Calgary and the old one will be closing at the end of June. But long before then, with the Sun setting later and later, it will become too light to see anything during the evening hours the science centre is open to offer any programming on the telescope deck. So, as the person in charge of the program, I looked at sunset times and moon phases and decreed that April 14 would be the last night for public viewing at the Deck.

And so it was. We went out in fine style. A facility that has served the public well since 1967 ended its public life with the best one-night attendance of the year, thankfully clear skies (after a day of snow), and a great turnout from present and past volunteers to the Deck. Staff from the science centre – the TELUS World of Science-Calgary – were on hand to present a certificate of appreciation to the members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada who have made the Deck program possible. It was their volunteer help that, over 44 years, allowed hundreds of thousands of people to view through telescopes and be amazed at the craters of the Moon, the rings of Saturn, and the moons of Jupiter.

Among the highlights: record line-ups for the comet crash on Jupiter in 1994, and even bigger line-ups in August 2003 for the close approach of Mars. That year we had to turn people away from 2 hour line-ups to look through the telescopes. The Deck was also one of the centrepiece venues for our 2009 Year of Astronomy programming.

Now, what has this got to do with astrophotography? Not much I suppose. But very few astrophotographers, and indeed amateur astronomers, aren’t also rabid enthusiasts for promoting astronomy to the public. Almost everyone in the hobby and profession now can look back to a moment at just such a facility or at telescopes staffed by people like these, moments when they first saw the rings of Saturn, or some other amazing sky sight. That view, and the enthusiasm of the telescope operator, got them hooked. And off they went to pursue a lifetime interest in the sky, perhaps even wanting to photograph it. I know that’s certainly the case with me. As such, so many people in the hobby feel it their obligation to give back to the community and allow others the same chance for a life-changing view through a telescope – a “Galileo moment” as we so aptly described it during the Year of Astronomy’s 400th anniversary of the telescope.

The Observing Deck at the TELUS World of Science is now closed. May its spirit of enthusiastic volunteers promoting moments of personal discovery live on.

Photo by John Mancenido

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