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Rothney Observatory gives Albertans a window into astronomy for nearly 50 years

Evolution of observatory sees empty pasture in Priddis become an integral research facility for the university
May 5, 2016
A crane lowers a piece of a telescrope frame into the open door of a telescope dome at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, 1971. UARC84.005_11.02 Photo courtesy of University Archives

A crane lowers a piece of a telescrope frame into the open door of a telescope dome at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, 1971. UARC84.005_11.02 Photo courtesy of University Archives

2016 marks 50 years of the University of Calgary being part of this vibrant, energetic city and we have a great deal to celebrate. Led by the Eyes High vision, we’ve become the top-ranked young university in Canada and North America. One of our significant milestones was creating a window to the universe to expand our knowledge and educate students, school groups and the public about the wonders of astronomy. We dug into the archives to look back at the naming and evolution of the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, located on a hilltop in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

In 1970, Alexander (Sandy) Cross donated a quarter section of land to the University of Calgary. At Cross’s request, the observatory was named the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory (RAO) to honour his mother’s side of the family. The site was officially opened in January 1972 with an unveiling of a sundial to symbolize the emergence of the University of Calgary onto the astronomical scene. 

When the observatory opened, the site consisted of a dome to house the 0.4-metre telescope, and an ATCO trailer to house equipment, which also doubled as a teaching area. In 1983, a Baker-Nunn satellite tracking camera was bought for one cent and transferred to the RAO from the Canadian Forces base at Cold Lake. The same year, the ground was broken for a new observatory building and dome to house the Baker-Nunn, the new 1.5-metre infrared telescope, and an aeronomy laboratory. 

Observatory has expanded over years to include interpretive centre and teaching facility

At the building opening in 1987, the 1.5-metre infrared telescope was renamed the Alexander Rothney Cross Telescope (ARCT) in honour of Cross who continued to donate money to the RAO through the Cross Educational Foundation. In the late 1980s, the Astrophysical Research Consortium at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico offered to fund half the costs of polishing a mirror for a 1.8-metre telescope in exchange for its short-term use. The new 1.8-metre telescope and mirror were installed in the mid-1990s and “first light” was achieved in January 1996. A year later, the RAO celebrated its 25th anniversary. 

The RAO continued to expand with a new interpretive centre and teaching facility that opened in 2005. The current facility houses research, teaching and school and youth group programs along with open houses and events throughout the year. The RAO has grown from an empty pasture to become a million-dollar research destination.

This is just one of the many historic stories that Library and Archives staff have produced to build the 50th Anniversary digital collection. The 50th Anniversary website also contains a rich collection of archive photos, videos, personal stories and fascinating facts about our university’s journey — contribute your own story there and remember to share it with your friends and family using the hashtag #ucalgary50.