Tuesday, 29 September 2015

New Group Helps Create a Future for the Centre of the Universe

Members of the public enjoy viewing the sky and some popcorn on the side at the DAO's last public observing night for 2015 on September 12. Chris Gainor photo

The lunar eclipse last weekend saw thousands of people around Victoria get out to places like Mount Tolmie, Esquimalt Lagoon, Cattle Point, and other sites with eastern views to see this glorious phenomenon of nature. 

There was another gathering that evening at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on Little Saanich Mountain that marked a step forward for the new organization that is working to revitalize the DAO’s Centre of the Universe visitors and educational centre.

Two years ago, the federal government withdrew operating funding for the Centre of the Universe, a decision that drew strong community opposition both inside Greater Victoria, where I live, and elsewhere in Canada. 

Last summer and this, volunteers from the Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada held star parties on Saturday nights at the DAO. Visitors on those evenings enjoyed observing through RASC members’ telescopes, tours of the historic Plaskett Telescope, and this year, speakers and exhibits at the Centre of the Universe. During both summers, youngsters enjoyed educational programs put on at the Centre by the University of Victoria’s Science Venture program.

But this setup was only a temporary solution. From the beginning of the effort to save the Centre, it was acknowledged that an organization to coordinate programming there was needed. This summer, the Friends of the DAO Society was incorporated and its board established, including chair Ben Dorman, an IT professional and astronomer, and Don Moffat, who spearheaded the initial effort to save the CU two years ago.

Now the new organization is going to work. It has set up a website http://observatoryhill.org, has begun to appeal for members and contributions, and on eclipse night it held its first event for members at the DAO. More than 120 people of all ages showed up to watch the eclipse and enjoy some hot chocolate and eclipse cookies.

But its aim is to keep the observatory open to the general public. and there are challenges ahead. The dozen Saturday nights the DAO was open to the public this past summer were overwhelmingly popular - hundreds of people came out to each of those evenings, and many were turned away at the bottom of the hill because there was no more capacity on top. As one of the RASC volunteers this summer, I could see just how popular the observing nights are.

The Friends of the DAO is working to increase public access to the DAO in summers to come. Right now it hopes to raise $9,500 to restore school tours to the DAO and improve the educational equipment available at the Centre of the Universe. Once this goal is achieved, the Friends hopes to expand programming at the Centre, keeping in mind that the 100th birthday of the Plaskett Telescope is coming up in 2018.

Please consider joining the Friends and contributing to its crowdfunding campaign. And keep an eye out for new events from this exciting new venture.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful write up. The importance of keeping this facility open to the public cannot be understated. The future of science outreach for youth lies in places like this, where imaginations and ideas can be sparked.

    1. The link for crowdfunding the Friends of the DAO is here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/bringing-back-science-education-at-the-observatory#/