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SFU opens new multimillion-dollar observatory

Grand opening slated for April 17
An image of the Orion nebula, which is one of the heavenly objects that will be visible through SFU's new telescope.

Name: Howard Trottier

Occupation: SFU physics professor, astronomy enthusiast and host of Starry Nights @SFU.

Why he’s in the news: Trottier is the man behind SFU’s new multimillion-dollar observatory, which includes a $250,000-telescope that can look 200 million years back in time. For years, Trottier has been organizing Starry Nights @ SFU, where members of the public convene on campus for “star parties.” Volunteers operate telescopes, and anyone can take a peek at the unfolding universe. The observatory is about to take these star parties to the next level. The observatory itself is a dark, domed room, with the telescope pointing towards the sky, and a console to control its direction. The surrounding landscaping includes illuminated walkways that charge during the day and light up at night. There are green features referencing our galaxy’s planets and their orbits around the sun.

Trottier’s brother and sister-in-law donated $2.7 million to make the observatory a reality. Trottier’s brother runs an electronics company, and the couple donates a portion of the profits to education science projects.  

SFU is celebrating the observatory opening on Friday, April 17 from 7 p.m. to midnight.


Q&A: How do you feel about the opening?

I’m very excited. The site is really taking shape. They’ve been working overtime to get things ready, and it looks great. I have two brothers, who are both coming out with their spouses and kids, so it’s going to be a family affair.


I understand your brother donated quite a large sum to get this of the ground.

That’s right, the entire capital budget came from my brother’s and his wife’s foundation, the Trottier Family Foundation, so that’s Lorne and his wife Louise.


Can you tell me a bit about what the observatory looks like?

It’s a university teaching and outreach observatory that has a very unusual, powerful telescope. It’s a building with a metal dome on top. … The observatory is really a key part of the site but most of the site is a project that goes well beyond the observatory, most of the capital expenditure was landscaping by far. The landscaping is all elements that relates to the science of astronomy. There are many things people will discover when they walk around the site. They won’t necessarily know what these things are until they are they exploring it.


What about the telescope, just how powerful is it?

The main thing about the telescope is how big the mirror is that collects light. So this mirror is 27 inches in diameter – 0.7 metres. A typical university teaching telescope would be about half that size.


What kinds of things can you see?

You can see star clusters, in some cases, very beautiful stars. Mainly stars, you’d see the same (ones) that were born together in a cloud of gas and dust, so stars can be blue and red, some brilliant, some less bright. … There are nebulas that can burst into stars. One of the most famous is called the Orion nebula, these things are gases that are illuminated by stars, inside the cloud, and those can be quite, quite pretty. There are also distant galaxies, you look at galaxies that are so far away the light can travel for millions and millions of years before it reaches your eyes.


What’s going on in the universe right now? I’ve heard our galaxy is going to collide with the Andromeda galaxy.

That’s right. In (four) billion years. Actually, galaxy collisions are relatively common. You can see other galaxies that are colliding right now. Both Andromeda and the Milky Way are very, very large, spiral galaxies, because they’re these beautiful spiral patterns. The two galaxies are only two million light years apart, that’s actually quite close. Their mutual gravity is very powerful, and they will eventually collide and coalesce into a single galaxy.


What kinds of things are you going to be looking for through the telescope?

The first night next Friday, if the weather gods are kind, we want to look at something very spectacular and easy. For example, Jupiter is in the night sky now. It will look big, it has four moons, it’s a very nice sight. We’ll also look at some clusters of stars. We’ll look at the Orion nebula, it’s a real winner. It’s one of the best things in the sky, it’s still out there now.


What about black holes, would you be able to see those?

No. Generally, you know a black hole is present if it has a companion star. Black holes will draw material from the companion star, and that material gets heated and it makes X-rays, and that’s a sign that something very violent or hot is going on around the black hole. You need a special X-ray telescope in space to see that. There’s all kinds of other things for us, there’s no shortage to show the public through a telescope like this.


Do you want this to inspire the younger generation to be more interested in science?

I do, the bigger vision is just to be engaged in the natural world in some way. Step out of the computer environment and see something real with their own eyes and demonstrate it’s OK to be passionate about something.


Why is it important for us to pay attention to what’s going on in the cosmos?

Ultimately, astronomy and science has told us things that illuminate the human condition in ways I think that no other philosophy or religion could come close to telling us. The scale, the age of the universe, the elements that form life were manufactured by stars. They were made in the interior billions of years ago, and that stuff makes us. We are connected to the universe in ways that are rich and deep and objectively true, which we never would have known without science. So that bigger vision of where that Earth belongs in the cosmos is something that most people don’t know and they need to know, because it tells you what’s important about life and human affairs in ways you would never know otherwise.