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 Frequently Asked Questions

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What is an "Observatory"?

 An "observatory" is the name given to the building which houses an astronomical telescope. In our case, a dome 6 metres in diameter covers the area where the telescope is located on the top floor of the new Arts & Science Extension at Grenfell. The dome was built by Ash-Dome of Illinois, one of the leading manufacturers of telescope enclosures. Sliding shutter doors on the dome open to reveal a "slit", or doorway, in the dome roof to allow the telescope to look at the sky, but protect it from wind and stray light. A controlling computer program automatically rotates the whole dome with the telescope to keep it looking out of the slit.

When conducting research, observers are able to operate the telescope from a separate "warm" room which lies below the observing floor - for it is invariably true that the clearest nights are also the coldest! - which is equipped with computers to analyse data.

The telescope itself is a research-quality instrument with a 61 cm (24 inch) mirror, manufactured by DFM Instruments of Colorado. DFM has a world-wide reputation for excellence as a result of building more than 85 mid-sized (i.e. 0.4 – 2.4 m) research-grade telescopes and up-grading 27 older instruments.

Several other instruments are also part of the observatory:

Coronado SolarMax 60A small solar telescope has also been mounted "piggy-back" to the main telescope, thus being able to take advantage of the main tracking drives.  The special solar filter will allow safe daytime viewing of sunspots and other solar activity, which will be especially interesting as we approach a sunspot maximum in the coming year.

An all-sky camera mounted on the roof of the new building, will continuously monitor the sky for aurora and meteors.

In addition, an ante-room containing astronomical displays is open to the public during normal building hours, and is also used as a waiting area during public tours.

All areas of the observatory, including the telescope, are fully accessible.

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How much did it cost?  Where did the money come from?

 In late May 2009, the federal and provincial governments announced a significant investment in infrastructure for Grenfell College. The federal funding is part of the Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP), a two-year $2-billion economic stimulus measure to support infrastructure enhancement at Canadian post-secondary institutions, including universities and community colleges. The provincial funding is part of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s $4-billion, multi-year infrastructure strategy.

At present, the total cost of the new Arts & Science Academic Extension (i.e. the Arts & Science Extension) is $27 million and KIP’s portion is $11.5 million. The telescope tender amount of US$417,000 is included in this joint federal-provincial grant.

The price of the telescope includes not only the complete, ready to use instrument itself, but the delivery (by truck from Colorado), installation (by two DFM employees), testing, and training of Grenfell staff (again by DFM). This took a little over a week, and the DFM personnel did not leave until everything was working perfectly and we were comfortable using the telescope. The level of customer service was impressive!) Also included was a one-year warranty and full customer support.

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How powerful is the telescope?

 The 61 cm mirror is almost 10,000 times larger than the naked eye, and so can gather that much more light than the eye. This means the telescope will allow us to see objects and details many times fainter than visible with our eyes alone; it has the effect of "storing up" light for our eyes. This does not change the size of the object viewed; this is the job of an eyepiece - it determines the "power" or magnification of the image. For example, you may have a pair of 7 x 50 binoculars at home - the "50" is the size of the light-gathering lens (in millimetres), while the "7" indicates how much the image is magnified. The eyepieces we will use on the telescope will typically magnify in the range of 150 to 250 times.

The huge light-gathering ability of the telescope and its excellent optics mean that we will be able to see many, many more stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, faint external galaxies, and details on the nearer planets such as Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. Only part of the Moon will be visible in the eyepiece at a time - but its craters, mountains and ridges will seem astoundingly close and very bright!

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Why build a large telescope in Corner Brook?

 We are the only teaching or research telescope anywhere in the Newfoundland and Labrador – we are still a “have-not” province when it comes to astronomy!  Observatories, especially ones with a strong public outreach component have a significant impact on getting people interested in science.  One of the major drivers in getting a observatory here has been the effect we believe it will have in attracting young people to careers in science and technology – an important part of building a competitive “knowledge-based” economy.

Why Corner Brook?  There is already a core of active observational astronomers here; Dr. Forbes and Darlene English have varied experience in using big telescopes in Chile, Arizona, Britsh Columbia and elsewhere. As well, they are committed to delivering public outreach programs through the observatory.  They have connections with astronomers with similar telescopes in Halifax, Toronto and Victoria – colleagues to collaborate on a number of projects involving undergraduate students.

Corner Brook also has better weather than many other locations in the province (see weather below).

The observatory is also a natural tie-in to the new B.Sc. degree program in Physics at the Grenfell campus. Students in the program have an opportunity to emphasize astronomy and/or particle physics, (options not available at the St. John's campus of MUN) and to participate in research projects being carried on by Grenfell faculty and staff.

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What about the weather in western Newfoundland?  Is it clear often enough to make it worthwhile?

 A night does not need to be perfectly clear to be a useable observing night; quite often partly cloudy nights are useful.

The graph below shows 20-year average data from Environment Canada for the Deer Lake (as statistics are not available for Corner Brook itself), St. John's and Halifax airports. The data reveal that the Corner Brook area will have many more useable observing nights than St. John's or Gander (not shown), and is comparable to the Halifax area.

Potential observers will be glad to see that the best observing "season" will be from June to October!

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Why put the telescope on campus?  Won't the city lights interfere with observing?

 Putting the telescope on campus makes it easy for students, astronomers, and the public to get to it.  It is much easier to bring a group of students up a few sets of stairs from the lecture hall to the dome, than it would be to drive them out to a site some tens of kilometres away.   Having the observatory on campus also reduces operating costs like providing power, snow clearing, and security.

Corner Brook is fortunate in not having too bad a problem with “light pollution”, and there are simple remedies the Campus and the community can apply to reduce the amount of “wasted” light shining up into the sky.  This can save money, too!

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How does the telescope work?

 The telescope is a design called Ritchey-Chretien Cassegrain. It uses two mirrors to magnify incoming light and form an image for the eye or an instrument.

In the diagram of a regular Cassegrain system above, light enters the telescope from the right and travels down the telescope tube.  It is reflected off the curved primary mirror at the bottom of the tube back up towards the smaller secondary mirror mounted near the inside of the tube mouth. The light is then reflected back down through a hole in the primary mirror and brought to a focus in an eyepiece for direct viewing, or to a camera or other instrument for analysis.  The Ritchey-Chretien design uses two hyperbolic mirrors to minimize the optical effects of spherical aberration and coma.

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Why is the alignment of the telescope important?

 The rotation of the Earth on its axis carries the stars across the sky from east to west.  If the telescope is not able to compensate for this motion, stars will, in just a few seconds, drift out of the field of view of a telescope. The computer-controlled equatorial fork mount of the telescope has two rotational axes that accomplish this automatically, so that the telescope remains pointed at an object, tracking it as it moves across the sky.

The job of moving the telescope to track the stars is made much simpler if one of the telescope’s two rotation axes is aligned parallel to the rotation axis of Earth (an extension of the North Pole into the sky). 

Since the telescope is permanently mounted to its concrete pier, this alignment has to be done correctly at the time the pier is constructed, and again when the telescope mounting bolts are set in concrete at the top of the pier.  The tolerance for misalignment is such that the mounting bolts have to be placed to within ½ a degree of the proper orientation!  Any error greater than this and the telescope winds up essentially useless.

The alignment is normally done in one of two ways: either by aligning the "polar" axis with Polaris (a star in the Little Dipper) which is about ½ degree from true north (shown in the diagram above), or more accurately, by sighting on the direction of the sun at local noon. It was this latter method that was used, as seen in the photo at right: the shadow of a plumb bob string was marked at the top of the three-story concrete pier at exactly local noon on Thursday, August 19, 2010.


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Who will use the telescope?  Will the public get to observe?

 While the telescope's primary role will be as a teaching instrument for Grenfell's astronomy students, both public outreach and scientific research will have major roles, as well.

Grenfell currently has courses in stellar astronomy (Physics 2151), the solar system (Earth Science 2150), galactic astronomy  (Physics 3160), and an observational astrophysics course (Physics 3180) as part of the Grenfell Campus B.Sc. in Physics.

Public observatory tours allow the general public to peer through the telescope themselves! A schedule is posted on the Public Tour page. There is no admission charge for these sessions. Information about arranging special tours in the fall and spring for school classes and groups such as Scouts and Girl Guides is available on the Public Tour page.

Perhaps the most exciting role will be a mentored observing program for high school students throughout the province! The program could have an individual student, or whole school classes, working on an observing project with the astronomers at Grenfell. Students can either come in person to do the observing under supervision, or have the observations done by a Grenfell staff member. We have a list of suggested projects, but students could also make up their own "observing proposal" for approval. If you or your class might be interested in this, contact us at

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What can we see with it? What kinds of observing projects can be done with the telescope?

 Near-Earth asteroid QG42As for the types of projects, "the sky's the limit"!

The size and accessibility of the telescope make many projects possible. Here are some examples:

  • monitoring stars whose light varies,
  • studying young and old clusters of stars,
  • searching external galaxies for supernovae,
  • looking for asteroids (such as the image at right) and using their reflectivity to study their composition,
  • detecting extra-solar planets.



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Why build a relatively small telescope for research when there are much larger ones and even the Hubble Space Telescope?  Can you do anything scientifically useful?

 Dumbbell NebulaThe demand for a share of the observing time on large research telescopes like the Canada-France Hawaii telescope is very high – typically there are requests for 3 – 10 times as many nights as are available!  It is common for an astronomer to only be awarded 3 - 5 nights of observing time per year (and there’s no guarantee those nights will be clear!).  The telescope here at Grenfell will be available every clear night – we expect we will easily have 50-80 nights and more of useable observing time! In addition, there is no travel involved, so less time and money is spent just getting to the observatory, and it becomes easy to have students participate.

There are plenty of objects in the sky still to observe.  Many important discoveries have been made (and are still being made) by people using small telescopes.  Small telescopes have been shown to be as scientifically productive as their larger counterparts; they play a vital role in training the next generation of observers, as well.

The advent of electronic detectors (with CCDs, similar to the image detector in your digital camera) in astronomy within the last few decades allows our modest 60 cm telescope to outperform the large telescopes of the past, so we will be able to do many projects that would have required much bigger hardware 30 years ago.  As an example, we should be able to detect the transit of a planet around another star, a feat unthought of 30 years ago!

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Memorial University

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