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September 2010



  Canadians' Contributions to Astronomy

Did you know that ... ?

Astronomy -- especially the opening of the Dominion Observatory, in Ottawa, in 1902 -- was essential for the surveying and westward expansion of our country.

When the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory opened in Victoria BC in 1918, its 1.83m telescope was the largest in the world; this marked the beginning of serious government investment in basic astronomical research.

When the University of Toronto's David Dunlap Observatory opened in Richmond Hill, Ontario in 1935, its 1.88m telescope was the second-largest in the world (and the Victoria telescope was third-largest); thus, university research in astronomy developed in parallel with government research.

Canadian monitoring of the radio emission from the sun at 10cm wavelength, started in 1946, is still used internationally as a measure of the "activity" of the sun; Arthur Covington (Ottawa) was the driving force behind this program.

The Canadian Impact Crater Program, started in 1951, established Canada as a leader in this field -- a field which is of increasing interest, since impacts can have profound effects on life on earth. This program was initiated by C.S. Beals, one of Canada's foremost astronomers.

The opening of the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton BC in 1960, and the Algonquin Radio Observatory in Algonquin Park ON in 1966, led to major scientific developments, such as the discovery of complex molecules in interstellar space.

In 1967, the Penticton and Algonquin Radio Telescopes were linked to create the first Very Long Baseline Interferometer -- providing a thousand-fold increase in the ability of radio telescopes to see fine detail.

The opening of the Observatoire de Mont Mégantic in 1978 marked the creation of the first major centre of astronomical research in French-speaking Canada.

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, which saw "first light" in 1979, provided Canada with a share of one of the most powerful and productive telescopes in the world. Canadian astronomers developed special instruments to extend the power of this telescope, including a technique which has since been used to discover almost a hundred planets around other stars.

The Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, opened in Toronto in 1985, is now a world leader in understanding planetary systems, stars and their life cycles, and the origin and evolution of the universe.

Canada has a share in the Gemini telescopes -- giant 8m telescopes located in Hawaii and in Chile.

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO), located deep within a nickel mine, is the world's most powerful detector of neutrinos -- subatomic particles emitted by nuclear reactions in the sun and stars, and in supernova explosions; it recently solved the "solar neutrino problem" -- the apparent lack of neutrinos from the sun (it turned out that many neutrinos change form during their flight from the sun, and are not detected).

Far-Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer satellite studies the universe at far-ultraviolet wavelengths; it was the first astronomical satellite in which Canada had a share.

The ODIN satellite, launched in 2001, observes the universe at sub-millimetre wavelengths; it was developed in collaboration with astronomers in Finland, France, and Sweden, and is the first satellite in which Canada played a significant role in design, construction, and operation.

In 2000, Canadian scientists recovered the Tagish Lake meteorite on a frozen lake in British Columbia; this meteorite was later found to be the most primitive meteorite ever recovered -- almost unchanged since the formation of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago.


Individual Achievements:

Sidney van den Bergh (Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Victoria) is a world leader in studying the distance, classification, nature and evolution of galaxies -- the basic building blocks of the universe.

Paul Boltwood, an amateur astronomer from Stittsville ON, has developed and applied sophisticated astronomical imaging techniques, making his small telescope outside Ottawa as powerful as the largest professional telescope of a generation ago; he is a winner of the international Amateur Achievement Award.

Richard Bond (Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, Toronto) is an internationally-known cosmologist who has contributed to our understanding of the universe -- especially using the cosmic microwave background radiation (the radiation left over from the Big Bang) to understand the properties of the universe.

Tom Bolton (University of Toronto) co-discovered the first example of a black hole in space. David Crampton and John Hutchings (Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Victoria) discovered the first black hole in a galaxy other than our own.

Canadian astronomers Ermanno Borra and Paul Hickson developed a telescope with a giant rotating mirror of liquid mercury -- much cheaper than a conventional telescope of similar size.

Terence Dickinson (Yarker, Ontario) has written hundreds of newspaper articles, and more than a dozen books -- including NightWatch with over 300,000 copies printed; he has won international awards, and is a Member of the Order of Canada.

Martin Duncan (Queen's University, Kingston) and Scott Tremaine (now based in the US) did pioneering work on the nature, origin, and evolution of the billions of comet nuclei in the outer solar system.

Montreal astronomer Gilles Fontaine is internationally-known for his studies of white dwarfs -- burned-out stellar corpses such as our sun will be in five billion years.

Canadian-born astronomer Wendy Freedman is a leader of the Hubble Space Telescope's "key project" to determine the size scale and age of the universe.

Canadian astronomers Brett Gladman and J.J. Kavelaars have discovered almost half of the known satellites of Saturn.

The late Helen Sawyer Hogg (University of Toronto) was probably Canada's best-known astronomer, as a result of her internationally-recognized research on globular star clusters, her leadership in astronomical organizations, and her weekly article which appeared in Canada's largest newspaper for 40 years.

Canadian-born amateur astronomer David Levy has discovered or co-discovered over 20 comets, including Shoemaker-Levy 9 which crashed into Jupiter in 1994; he is also a prolific writer of books and articles on astronomy.

The late Andrew McKellar (Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, Victoria) was the first to measure the temperature of interstellar space -- 2.4 degrees above absolute zero; this was actually the first measurement of the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation.

The late Peter Millman was a world expert on meteors, using visual, radar, and spectroscopic techniques; he laid the groundwork for a whole series of important projects on meteors, meteorites, and meteorite impact craters.

Jack Newton, an amateur astronomer based in British Columbia, is a world leader in astronomical imaging techniques, using both film and electronic cameras; his work has appeared in many books and articles, and he was a recipient of the international Amateur Achievement Award.

The late John S. Plaskett (Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, Victoria) discovered the most massive pair of stars known -- still known as "Plaskett's Star(s)". With colleague J.A. Pearce, he made the first accurate determination of the mass, size, and rotation of our Milky Way galaxy.

Quebec-born astrophysicist Hubert Reeves has been called "the Carl Sagan of the French language" as a result of his highly-praised and widely-read books and articles.

Ian Shelton (University of Toronto) discovered the brightest supernova in 400 years, on February 23, 1987.

Don Vandenberg (University of Victoria) is the most-cited (in research papers) astronomer in Canada, as a result of his fundamental work on the structure and evolution of stars.

The late Isabel Williamson, an amateur astronomer in Montreal, nurtured and trained a whole generation of amateur astronomers in Montreal, including comet discoverer David Levy.

The Canadian Network for Observational Cosmology is a leader in determining the fundamental properties of the universe through the study of distant galaxies; other teams of Canadian astronomers have used the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation for this same purpose.

Canadian astronomers have developed widely-used software for image analysis, notably Paul Stetson's DAOPHOT; they have also developed the Starry Night sky simulation software, which is used by amateur astronomers and students around the world.

This list does not include Canada's many contributions to space science and technology, including one of the first satellites (Alouette), the Canadarm, the International Space Station, and the Canadian astronaut program.


Related links:

with files from J.R. Percy(2003), University of Toronto


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