New telescope in dark sky preserve opens universe to Albertans

Gerhard Lotz peers through the 17-inch Corrected Dall-Kirkham telescope at the Hesje Observatory

“It’s a beautiful instrument,” says the associate professor of physics and mathematics at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus in Camrose, southeast of Edmonton.

The telescope’s 17-inch aperture gives it a high light-gathering power, helping users to see vast distances into the cosmos.

The observatory, located in the Beaver Hills Biosphere and Dark Sky Preserve, a 300-square-kilometre area near Miquelon Lake, is about 30 kilometres from Camrose.

“If you could point the telescope at a person in Camrose you could still distinguish their two eyes actually,” Lotz said. “It’s that powerful.” 

Take a tour and learn more about the Hesje Observatory at the Augustana Miquelon Lake Research Station southeast of Edmonton, Alta. 2:13

You can see more from the Hesje Observatory at the Augustana Miquelon Lake Research Station on Our Edmonton Saturday at 10 a.m., Sunday at noon and 11 a.m. Monday on CBC TV and the CBC GEM. 

The telescope has done wonders picking up all sorts of night sky phenomena from star clusters to gas clouds, as well as spying on our neighbour. 

“The Andromeda Galaxy is our closest big galaxy neighbour, a mere 2.5. million light years away,”  Lotz said. “The telescope has really good views of that.” 

The Andromeda Galaxy as seen from the Hesje Observatory. (Hesje Observatory)

The big selling feature for this observatory, though, is it’s location in a dark sky preserve, said Glynnis Hood, station manager of the observatory and environmental sciences professor. 

“We are losing our dark skies at a tremendous rate,” Hood said. “There are people who have never grown up being able to see any real night sky. 

“It’s just that ability to reach beyond ourselves and to see that we are very much a very small part of a really big universe.”

Hood likes the area so much she moved to a cabin not far from the station and marvels at what she can now see every night. 

“Just before I went to bed I looked out the window and there was this supermoon, sparkling across the water,” she said. 

Observatory station manager Glynnis Hood stands in front of the new facility. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

The observatory, the result of a donation of $500,000 from University of Alberta alumnus and retired businessman Brian Hesje, opened earlier this year.

Rae Metrunec, the observatory technician, has been giving virtual talks to introduce people to the facility. 

“We just meet over Zoom and I have this whole presentation that showcases the telescopes,” said Metrunec, who’s hosted community groups like Guides and Scouts and families for a fee of $75 per group.

The station is equipped with bunks, a kitchen, washrooms and a classroom to accommodate overnight space camps once the pandemic is over. 

“We’re hoping in the summer we’ll actually be able to have in person socially-distanced events where small groups could come to the observatory,” Metrunec said.

The 17-inch Corrected Dall-Kirkham telescope allows researchers to see deep into the heavens. (Adrienne Lamb/CBC)

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