A Night at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

How to get there and what to expect when you arrive. (Hint: Big telescopes and smart people telling you where to look.)

True fact: One of the three largest telescopes in Canada is just outside of Calgary. It is at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, where you will find two other telescopes. They are used by the University of Calgary’s Department of Physics and Astronomy for research, but the RAO also opens up to public to let them see the sky.

Here’s how to get there and what to expect when you arrive. This information will be useful for Milky Way Nights, August 13 to 15, when Saturn is in view, the Perseids meteor shower is in full swing and staff at the RAO are there to guide you through the skies.

Getting there


The RAO is close to Priddis and about 45 minutes southwest of the Calgary Tower. To get there, get to Hwy 22X. From Hwy 22X, turn south onto 208th Street. You’ll see signs at that turn for Millarville and Turner Valley. On that road, follow the signs to the observatory.

You can also swing around through Bragg Creek (where you can make an evening of it and stop at The Farmhouse for dinner). From there, go east on Hwy 22 until 208th Street and follow the signs.


What is there when you get there


The University of Calgary’s Rothney Astrophysical Observatory is situated on a quarter section of land near Priddis. The land was donated to the RAO in 1970 by A.R. Sandy Cross, for whom the largest telescope is named. A variety of events are held throughout the year where members of the public are invited to visit the facilities normally used for teaching and research by the University of Calgary faculty and students.


This larger building houses two telescopes. The 1.8m A.R. Sandy Cross Telescope (ARCT) is one of the three largest telescopes in Canada. The smaller telescope is the Baker-Nunn. It was originally built by the American military in the 1950s as a Cold War spy telescope. As the sky begins to darken, local astronomers and observatory staff set up telescopes on the lawn and locate interesting stars and planets to show to visitors. Bring your lawn chairs and blankets to sit out and watch the sunset, and don’t forget your bug spray! 


The dome that houses the ARCT.


Inside, astronomers are on hand to answer questions and show you how the telescope is used. Here, the ARCT is shown.


Crowd into the smaller building next door, where an expert is operating the RAO’s 1.5m telescope. Real-time images are shown on a large screen, and the astronomer will sometimes take requests from the audience for what to point the scope at next. Bring all your astronomy-related queries; the staff on hand are passionate about what they do and love to take questions from the crowd.


Be sure to stop by the viewing terrace, where a number of smaller telescopes are set up and pointed at interesting features in the sky (you can see Saturn’s rings or the Perseids meteor shower.). Sky tours are given here as well, with stars, constellations, planets and more being pointed out by the experts.


Upcoming events at RAO


Milky Way Nights

August 13, 14 and 15 from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

This is the best time to see the Perseids meteor shower. Saturn is also visible. There is no formal presentation on Milky Way Nights, but you can look through the telescopes, there is a sky tour on the viewing terrace and lots of astronomers on hand to tell you what you are looking at. Before you go, check the sky camera. If it is cloudy, the telescopes won’t be operating. More info at ucalgary.ca/rao.


Intuit Astronomy

September 18 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. with night sky viewing until 11 p.m.

The RAO is partnering with Beakerhead for this event that is hosted by the Arctic Institute of North America. John Macdonald, author of Arctic Sky, leads a night of Inuit lore and space science. Stay after that presentation to hear University of Calgary associate professor Eric Donovan discuss new research. You can even look through the telescopes. More info at beakerhead.com.

For directions, event listings and more information about the Rothney Astrophysical Obeservatory, visit ucalgary.ca/rao

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