In 2018 it seems like members of the Victoria Centre spent nearly as much time looking backward as they did looking up. Their focus was directed to the past as they celebrated the Plaskett Telescope as it completed 100 years of service. The Centre was involved in every aspect of the Plaskett Centennial including the unveiling of a national historic site plaque, the “first light” re-enactment on May 5th and the participation with the FDAO in the Victoria Day Parade. They were also invited to attend CASCA 2018, the astronomical conference which had several sessions devoted to the history of the DAO.
The attention was not just confined to the telescope. John Stanley Plaskett the driving force behind the scope was also celebrated in fine style. His achievements were captured in the new biography “Northern Star J.S. Plaskett” by Peter Broughton. What I found impressive was that Plaskett did not rest on his laurels with the design and acquisition of the scope. Five years after the 72 inch went into service Edwin Hubble proved that Andromeda was a galaxy rather than a nearby nebula. After learning of this discovery, Plaskett embarked on an ambitious observation program. During a 10 year period radial velocities of strategic stars were acquired with the 72 inch telescope. These measurements were employed to accurately determine our distance from the centre of the Milky Way as well as to calculate the rotation period about our galaxy. With his vision and long term commitment Plaskett and the DAO made a major astronomical contribution.
In 2018 we also celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. As we enter 2019 do not expect this historical focus to wane. The International Astronomical Union are all set to kick off their centennial. That party, however, may be drowned out by the 50th anniversary of Apollo which will resonate much more strongly with the boomers who lived through that era.
Speaking of boomers I recall a vivid memory from Christmas Eve, 50 years ago. I was just exiting the Odeon Theatre, my mind abuzz after watching Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001 A Space Odyssey”. When I looked up I glimpsed the Moon over Yates Street. I was stunned! Just think … at that very moment Apollo 8 was in orbit around the Moon. It was mind blowing and made “Space Odyssey” much more credible. When the astronauts recited from “In The Beginning” that Christmas Eve it reverberated around the globe.
Excellent documentaries on Apollo 8 recently appeared on NOVA and the BBC5Live while “The First Man” a new movie about Neil Armstrong has been playing on the big screen at the IMAX. Expect the Apollo drumbeat to continue to get louder as we approach July 20th, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing.
In stark contrast to the massive “Big Science” “Moon Shot” team efforts of NASA, the almost solitary contributions of Plaskett and Hubble seem quaint these days. Is there still a role for the individual in this brave new world? I definitely think so. As proof let me remind you of my favourite story of the past year. It involved the Argentine amateur Victor Buso who managed to capture the shock breakout phase of a star the instant that it went supernovae (See the March 2018 edition of SkyNews). It does not get better than that!
Tired of looking back? Maybe it is time to peek outside and if weather permits try to look up.
Wishing you all the best and many cloudless nights in 2019.