Future of the DDO: The View from the Basement

August 10, 2016

Warning: THIS BLOG ENTRY IS GETTING PERSONAL. No, not in the Donald Trump way.

Since starting ylab and this blog, we’ve had participation, hard work and co-operation from many people and groups and companies in the community. In that spirit, we’ve kept a level of anonymity to the blog to reflect what this team effort. The anonymity was accidental at first. Then it became an inside joke, and now it’s an unwritten rule.

This entry is an exception..

I’ve been fielding questions about the announcement from RASC-Toronto Centre and the news in the press about the status of the David Dunlap Observatory.

While the situation is still fluid, there’s a lot happening in the background to keep the place running for now and for the long term.

Putting aside the organisational and ownership issues, here’s what I’ve personally seen happen at the DDO over the last several years.

  • Back when it was still owned be University of Toronto, I remember my first visit to the site with my daughter. The WOW factor is permanently imprinted from our first look through the giant telescope at the twin stars Alcor and Mizar.
  • As a Scout leader and with my kids in both Scouts and Guides, I’ve had many enthusiastic astronomy nights and telescope visits, first with the UofT people, and then with even more enthusiasm by the RASC-TC volunteers.
  • When my business grew into its first real office in Richmond Hill and real employees, I brought them out to the first Perseid meteor shower night held by the DDO volunteers. They’re still talking about it. And by the way, it’s happening again tomorrow night, and sold out.
  • When, about a year ago, we were programming the first ylab events, the DDO volunteers hosted us for an evening focused on telescope technology. For the first time, I saw the lower level of the dome where the telescope is maintained. The volunteers cleaned it up and made it accessible and educational. I saw the administration building’s basement workshops where so much work happens to keep this and other GTA astronomy facilities running. Where else can you get access to a vacuum chamber to mirror coat your lens?
  • I’ve seen the volunteers plow and shovel the snow, cut the grass, clean the washrooms, build things to maintain the equipment… It’s never ending, and there’s never a complaint. It’s a labour of love.
  • I’ve seen major work by the developer to replace the beautiful stone front steps and repair the roof of the administration building.
  • In the last few months, I’ve seen more participation by the Richmond Hill city staff in the grounds maintenance. My car thanks you for filling the potholes.

In short, it just keeps getting better and better.

Astronomy is far more than looking at stars. From its beginnings, to be an astronomy site, the David Dunlap Observatory has been about the engineering, electrical and mechanical skills to build and maintain the telescope. It’s been about physics and chemistry to run spectrographic analysis of starlight to figure out how stars are made, and to understand atmospheric effects. It’s been about math to understand, track and predict the courses of the stars. It’s been about radio –for astronomy, and for communicating with other observatories around the world back in the days when a short long distance call could double your phone bill. It’s been about increasing understanding and knowledge through study and training of the next generation.

I like to think that it’s in that spirit that, after co-operating on a couple of events and helping each other out, that ylab was invited to kick off the maker space in a small room in the basement of the DDO. The technology and education we’re working with has different labels – robotics, ham radio, maker stuff. But it’s all fundamental to the operation of a major astronomy facility. There are never enough volunteers to accomplish all the goals, but this way the DDO gets a few more to join the existing ones who are so technically adept.

ylab has only been in there a short time, but we’ve been able to help out in a few different ways. We’ve written about some of them. In a recent example, we’ve brought in oscilloscopes and other gear for restoring the DDO library’s old tube radio. Ancient test gear that to an untrained eye may look obsolete, but is phenomenal for education and maintaining an 80 year-old telescope with unique mechanicals, 120V DC electricals. We’re hoping to do a lot more.

So what’s next?

A lot of great people at the City of Richmond Hill and the groups involved are committed ensuring the facility meets all of its original founders’ astronomy, science, engineering and educational objectives.

As a member of the RASC-Toronto Centre, a board member of ylab, an active participant in maker nights in the DDO, and someone who’s worked with Richmond Hill Economic Development, I’m in contact with a lot of people, and I hear a lot of things.

The message I’m receiving from everyone I’ve talked to is clear: ylab should keep doing what it’s doing. It’s good for the community. It’s good for the DDO.

I don’t know how the dust will settle. As the process unfolds, ylab may evolve into a different form, just as is happening now with the DDO’s operations.

We’re moving full steam ahead on our DDO Sept 10 maker day, and other things we’re planning. We’re working more events and cool things. We’re reaching out to more community groups. And we’re willing to help in any way we can.

I’m looking forward to an even brighter future for the David Dunlap Observatory.

RJ Juneau, instigator, ylab.


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