is the principal astrophysical teaching and research facility of the
Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Calgary.
This is a detailed document on the RAO, its facilities, equipment, programmes, and personnel, but it is basically historical in nature. For current operations, policies, observing schedules, see the current operations RAO web page, found at:
After ~1/3 of a century, I stepped down from adminstering the RAO, most recently as Director, on Sept. 1, 2004. Dr. Rene Plume, at the time Associate Director, accepted the position Of Acting Director for one year, and developed the new RAO website. The current director is Philip Langill, who inaugurated yet another website.
The RAO received $280,000 through the Alberta Science and Research
Investments Program (ASRIP). Here are my prepared remarks with respect to the award (not
Remarks of the director at the ASRIP Press Conference
We also received a substantial sum for a new Visitors' Centre to enhance
the outreach program of the RAO and upgrade the twin-shell classroom that
served this purpose since the start of the current Open House program in 1995.
This was awarded under the provincial Science Awareness and Promotion Program.
In addition to this support, we had total university contributions of $90,000
from the V.P. (Finances & Services), V.P. (Research), Faculty of Science, and
Dept. of Physics & Astronomy, The RAO's benefactor, Dr. A. R. Cross, had
generously contributed an additional $30,000 in cash to the project.
Altogether, about $750,000 was obtained from two programs for both research infrastructure and science Awareness and promotion over a four year interval, starting in 2001.
To learn about the RAO's Celebratory 25th aniversary meeting on the University of Calgary campus, which was held on Saturday, June 7, 1997, please click here: RAO celebration for the meeting overview
and here : for details.
To check out the weather in this part of the world, you can consult the
Source for IR map of western Canada among other places in North America
For a wider view, try:
This NASA GOES image of western North America and the eastern Pacific
The observatory exists thanks to the generosity of A. (Sandy) R. Cross, whose
gift in 1970 of a quarter section of land to the University of Calgary for
the partial purpose of constructing an astronomical observatory enabled it
to see the light of day.
For comments about Sandy's contributions to the RAO, see
Testimony to Sandy
The initial planning for an observatory came from suggestions by senior members of the Space Group of the Department of Physics (as it was known at the time) at the University of Calgary that courses in astronomy be included in its curriculum offerings. In early 1970, Alan Clark was assigned the task of designing an observatory to support this new undergraduate programme and produced a proposal which included the purchase of telescopes and a classroom. Enquiries about a site for this observatory at, or close to, a facility of the Canadian government's Department of Energy, Mines, & Resources, namely, a Photographic Zenith Tube installation south of Calgary, led to the news that a portion of land adjacent to this facility was for sale. Further investigation led directly to the very generous offer of a quarter-section of land for the observatory by Sandy Cross, a prominent rancher and long-time citizen of this area with deep connections to the early history of Calgary. Thus began a very fruitful and enjoyable collaboration with Mr. Cross and his family. The adopted name of the resulting observatory incorporates the family name of Rothney in recognition of this initial gift. On a cold evening in the fall of 1971, Alan and his new colleague Gene Milone, made the first "astronomical" observations on the new site by establishing the N-S line for the piers of the 16-inch telescope. This telescope was subsequently installed into its dome, a classroom was placed next to a multi-pillar terrace for student observing and the site developed to allow its use by undergraduate classes. Thus began the RAO's development.
The RAO was inaugurated on Jan. 7, 1972 with a dedication ceremony at the observatory's site in Priddis, Alberta. Dr. Margaret Burbidge, newly appointed director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory attended and unveiled a sundial to mark the official opening of the RAO. The RAO at that time consisted of a joined pair of ATCO trailers for a classroom and office, a Minnaert observing terrace for astronomical laboratories, and, thanks to provincial matching funds, a 41-cm telescope and dome for astronomical research. T. A. Clark and E. F. Milone became responsible for operations of the RAO and were formally designated co-directors in 1975.
The lease and subsequent acquisition of a 1.5-m canogen-coated metal mirror by the Department of Physics permitted the RAO to expand its horizons. An NSERC major installation grant to T. A. Clark and E. F. Milone of $198,000 for a mounting for the 1.5-m infrared telescope followed. In 1981, the Cross Educational Foundation made further donations to enable a building for the 1.8-m telescope to be constructed. At the same time, a Baker-Nunn camera was contributed by the Canadian Forces Base in Cold Lake. Both instruments were housed in the new IRT building, which also contains an electronic and mechanical workshop, control rooms for at least two telescopes, kitchen and sleeping facilities, and several storage rooms, one of which is currently in use by the Department of Geology and Geophysics for seismometry work. Another room, now used for instrumentation, was designed for the use of the Space Sciences group at the University of Calgary for upper atmosphere studies. With matching funds, a new generation honeycomb 1.8-m mirror was purchased from the Angel group at the University of Arizona, to permit imaging work.
The 1.5-m telescope and new building were dedicated at a formal ceremony in May, 1987. The consecration was provided by Dr. George V. Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory (who facilitated the acquisition of the 1.5-m mirror) and the greetings of the international community was conveyed by Dr. Harlan J. Smith, Director of the McDonald Observatory of the University of Texas. Sandy Cross cut the ribbon to inaugurate telescope operation. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Physics became the Department of Physics and Astronomy in recognition of the increased prominence of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Calgary.
In the late 1980's, an offer to fund 1/2 the costs of polishing the 1.8-m mirror by the Astrophysical Research Consortium (Apache Point Observatory, New Mexico) in return for short-term usage and a further donation of funds by Sandy Cross permitted this work to be done. Milone confirmed the quality of the 1.8-m mirror at Apache Point Observatory in September 1992, while it was undergoing tests and being used to obtain observations prior to installation of ARC's 3.5-m mirror. The completed 1.8-m mirror was received in 1993. The mounting structure for the new mirror was completed in 1995, and first light achieved in January, 1996. All the work on the mounting of the 1.5-m and successor 1.8-m telescope was done in the machine shop operated by the Faculty of Science. The 1.8-m, formerly known as the IRT (for Infrared Telescope), is now to be called the 'Sandy Cross Telescope', or after our benefactor's initials, the 'ARCT'. In 1996, an NSERC equipment grant was awarded to upgrade the RAO's computers and communications. With this development, the RAO can be said to have become of age. The telescope is one of only four telescopes of 60-inch or larger size, and three in the 72-74-inch range in Canada. It is, moreover, the only telescope in the country and one of a small number world-wide to make use of the alt-alt type mounting which permits unrestricted access to the stars of the Northern sky. It also permits, at least theoretically, continuous infrared observation of circumpolar stars, which at the RAO's latitude, are a large fraction of the stars of the northern sky. In November, 1996, Dr. Philip Langill was hired as Observing Associate for the RAO; this position has been renamed as that of Resident Astronomer and Phil has been reappointed for the 1997-98 academic year. He assisted with RAO programs, instrumentation and systems operations, data acquisition and analysis when appropriate. This position was supported by grant-holding faculty members of the Astrophysics Group and by the Department of Physics & Astronomy, but is currently in limbo with Phil's resignation as of Aug. 1, 2000. The position was not filled after this, as efforts became focused on the upgrades. Beginning in 2003, the department provided no operating funds for the RAO, despite the requirements of the upgrade grants that such operating funds be maintained. This severely impacted the completion schedule of the upgrades.
A Space Science trailer from the University of Michigan to study airglow and aurora for several years around 1985. The knoll on which the RAO compound is located has a commanding view of the sky and is suitable for wide-field cameras.
For a number of years, the RAO has supported earthquake studies by providing a site for seismometers first for the geophysics group at the University of Alberta, and, more recently, for the Geology & Geophysics Department of the University of Calgary. See Geophysics Project for a detailed description of this project, directed by Jim Brown, now in Scandinavia.
In a collaboration with the Department of Physics & Astronomy, the Geology & Geophysics Department has now installed a high speed link to the campus via a GHz transmitter/receiver system to retrieve data from the seismometry array and to have two-way communication with the RAO's telescopes. See: RAO wireless ethernet communications
An environmental program has been conducted at the RAO by Anne-Lise Norman and her students. Dr. Norman reported that "At the Rothney site the sampler is designed only to operate for winds from the SW that have speeds greater than 1 km/hr. The students are enthusiastically analyzing the samples that have been collected and we expect to have a coherent report on the project by the end of April ". See Air Sampling for details.
The innovative and highly successful RADS automated photometry system has permitted observations to be obtained on non-photometric nights on the 41-cm telescope. The infrared chopping system on the 1.8-m telescope supports automatic centering ('peaking') on the strongest signal source within the aperture.
In Fall 1995, Arlin Crott's group at Columbia University's Astronomy Department provided a CCD camera system as part of a collaborative program to observe gravitational lensing events in the spiral galaxy M31. This instrument permitted a number of telescope tests to be performed as well, but it was received late in the season for the projected use on M31, and weather conditions permitted only limited use on the ARCT.
1996 saw the recommissioning of several instruments on the ARCT, thanks to the
efforts of the Faculty of Science Technical Workshop..
The Photometrics CCD camera, obtained on behalf of the RAO by the then department Head, Sandy Murphree, is permitting improved-precision CCD photometry to be obtained on the ARCT. The first observations were made in January 1996, with a CCD camera equipped with a rotating stage constructed in the Faculty of Science workshop. The filter assembly has undergone modification, and the camera has been on-line as of September, 1998. The 1024 x 1024 Site chip has a physical size of 1 inch square. for a scale of 40.3 pixels/mm, or about 5 pixels/arc-sec at the focal plane of the ARCT 1.8-m telescope.
The Astrophysics Group had strong research programmes, and all undergraduate astrophysics majors and graduate students were expected to use the facilities. An RAO Users' Group was formed in Fall, 1995 to discuss further developments at the RAO and to promote operations and outreach. The name of the group was changed to the "RAO Support Group", and in September, 1996, it achieved recognition as an official group within the university community.
As part of the upgrade on the 0.4-m telescope, an FLI CCD was installed at the Newtonian focus of the 0.4-meter telescope to support UBVRI photometry for stellar work and an NECAS filter set for asteroid photometry. The Astro-Computer Control CCD previously on the Newtonian focus has been removed. Stellar work on the 0.4-m may now consist of wide-field imagery of open clusters as well as variable stars. To reach fainter objects, the RADS photometer was moved to the ARCT (see below).
The 1.8-m telescope pointing and tracking worked as expected with considerable improvement in faint star limit over the 1.5-m telescope operation. Further tracking upgrades were planned to permit tracking on still fainter stars. The implementation of these upgrades was delayed because of a sucession of hardware failures that proved both lengthy and costly to overcome.
Spectra of stars as faint as 14th magnitude were obtained and fainter limits were possible. The image quality was shown to be sufficient to acquire useful images of extended objects such as nebulae and star clusters. Spectra of Comet Hyakutake were obtained on March 24, 1996 during the Comet Open House, and the spectrograph was used to support studies of planetary nebulae (Phillip Langill) and variable stars in ongoing programmes.
At one point, in 2005, a decision was made to no longer support the dynamic instruments due to manpower shortage, but this has apparently been rescinded. A new technician was hired to assist Fred Babott in 2006, and there was some hope that all the instruments could again be supported. There is an infrared chopping system equipped with improved IR filters (the IRWG set; see below). Work was done on a 256x256 INSb array, on loan from the Apache Point Observatory by S. Johnson under the direction of Rene Plume. This detector, however, proved too insensitive to use for stellar photometry. Attempts to obtain on loan an IR imager from other observatories have not been fruitful.
Dewar #1 contains both the improved IR passband filters discussed elsewhere
(see IR photometry ), and the older RAO JHKL filters.
Active use of the new filters is continuing, but long delayed by past failures
to support the RAO adequately to replace and repair dective mechanical and
electronic components. Test results on the filters, reported in IAU Reports
in Astronomy of Commission 25 (Photometry & Polarimetry), and by Milone & Young
(2005) indicate that the new filters provide lower extinction coefficients and
superior S/N characteristics, but suffer somewhat decreased through-put
compared to more conventional filters.
IR Software improvements for improved efficiency were implemented
in summer, 1997, with filters obtained from Customs Scientific, Arizona.
It is also to be noted that the passbands of an IR consortium
organized by Doug Simons (Gemini) while showing improvement over previous
passbands, are not quite as good, in the numerical experiments we conducted
far, than the actual filter passbands from our Custom Scientific filters
(iz, iJ, iH, iK). Nevertheless they represented a step forward in the
standardization of IR photometry.
In the early 00's, new IRWG filters were obtained.
See IRWG Rep.97 for that report.
In the early 00's, new IRWG filters were obtained.
The Photometrics CCD camera system was functioning well following the discovery and reinsertion of loose boards in the Photometrics-supplied Controller that rides on the telescope frame.
A large screen for dome flats was installed on the ARCT dome in
the near future for dome flats. A series of lamps (as per KPNO telescopes)
was installed on the top ring of the telescope for screen illumination.
The RADS photometry system was placed on the ARCT at the west port of the bonette in the late 90's to permit photometry of fainter sources than was possible on the 0.4m telescope where it had been located since its development in the early 1980's. The imaging was checked early in 2000 and a redundant lens was taken out. By experiment it was determined that this second Fabry lens provided for sharp images on the PMT but compromised the focusing of the main opics on the photocathode, the main purpose of the Fabry lens. The imaging is now satisfactory. Remote set-up was enabled and the RADS could be run by a single observer.
In the early 00's a new instrument cube was installed on the ARCT to permit instruments to be placed at five ports, each of which will be selectable easily from the console. We regarded this as a major advance toward remote operations of the telescope.
A major upgrade of the geophysics sensor system at the RAO was built in the early 00's. See Geology & Geophysics Project for an earlier description of this project. The Department of Geology and Geophysics developed a direct, high speed, line-of-sight data link to dedicated servers on campus to permit both reliable and constant data transmission from the seismometer array currently planned and images for archival and processing purposes from the astronomy data acquisition computers at the RAO. This is an exciting development that has permitted remote, and robotic telescope operations for the past few years. This communications facility has been joined by a second, to insure sufficient bandwidth for webcasts of Open House events, remote operations for telescopes, etc. has been approved by the province, although bandwidth is still an issue.
In 2001, the RAO was awarded a $175,000K grant matching a similar anount in donations from faculty, departmental, and other sources from the provincial Innovation and Science Research Investments Program for research infrastructure upgrades. Together with matching donations from Dr. Alan Hildebrand, the Faculty of Science, the Department of Physics & Astronomy, and donations in kind from Analog Devices (through Prof. Mike Smith), Infrared Labs. (through Prof. Emer. Alan Clark), and Torus Inc., enabled us to resuscitate the Baker-Nunn satellite tracking camera, and more fully automate The 41-cm telescopes to permit remote observing. Regrettably, the upgrade was not completely satisfactory. Remote and queuing operations were not implemented, and the 1.8-m upgrades were not completed. It is true that both the Patrol Camera and 41-cm telescopes were operational, but the question of robustness remained, and to make matters worse, an unauthorized installation of a 14-in Celestron telescope and lunar camera piggy-backed onto the 16-in telescope seemed to compromised operations on the 0.41-m, although this was not certain. Even though the dome upgrade for the 1.8-m ARCT remains incomplete, automated mirror covers were installed by Fred Babott, and software work on improving the encoder signal was implemented. Due to drive motor failures, lack of operating funds, and shortage of skilled labor, the upgrade of the secondary assembly took far longer than desired. In 2009, Fred Babott retired, leaving again one technician to maintain all systems.
The following people have been associated at one time or another with the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory and/or its associated programmes:
Our long-time RAO technician, Fred Babott, passed away just recently. Fred kept the RAO together for decades, through good times and lean, and was helpful to generations of students both at the RAO and in the lab.
Other astronomers who have supported RAO initiatives in recent years include: Arlin Crotts (late Prof., Columbia University), Prof. H-J. Fahr (Prof., Univ. of Bonn), Graham Hill (Astronomer, formerly of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory), Barbara Jones (Research Physicist, Univ. of California at Dan Diego), Josef Kallrath (BASF & Univs. of Bonn and Heidelberg), Colin Scarfe (Prof., Univ. of Victoria), Peter Stetson (Astronomer, Dominion Astrophysical Observatory), Andrew T. Young (Senior Research Associate, San Diego State University).
Graduate students associated with the RAO have include: Virginia (Fabro) Volk,
Kate Su, Michael Williams, Michael Mazur, Joe Postma, and visiting graduate student
(from Shiraz University), Reza Pazhouhesh.
In addition there are an active group of RAO observing volunteers. The latter have included astrophysics alumni/alumnae: Ingrid Eichelbaum, Dr. Grant Gussie, Steven Griffiths, Jim Himer, Mike Mazur, and Wendy Segelken; amateur astronomers included: Bill Yeung, Barry Johnson, and Tom Cameron, among other members of the RASC, Calgary Centre, with whom the RAO has close ties. Former and Present undergraduate astrophysics majors who have been active observers have included: Dave Alton, James Day, Kyle Degenhardt, Kerri Dubray, Danielle Fraser, Dr. Luigi Gallo, Dr. Carl Grillmaier, Leah Hannis, Larry Kim, Andy Kirsch, Tom MacFarlane, Chris Ostrowski, Andy Pon, Jon Ramsey, Warren Shaw, Russell Shanahan, Jeffrey Stoesz, Caleb Sunstrom, Steven Weimer, Chris Winder, Nicole Wityk, and Mike Garret.
An Open House to observe Comet Hyakutake was provided on March 24, 1996, although bitter cold winds and deep snow cover at the RAO restricted access, about 60 people appeared to observe the comet and other astronomical objects.
On May 25, 1996 we held the first formal 'Open Night' of the year at the RAO. 100 people were attracted despite cloudy skies, for tours of the facilities, terrace telescope views, when the sky was transparent enough, and for two talks (one by Gene Milone and one by Russ Taylor).
On June 7, 1996 we hosted a star night with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's 'Night Crawlers' young astronomers group, where new amateur astronomers are encouraged to learn about observing, under the watchful eyes of seasoned observers. The venue of the RAO made the night more memorable and hopefully may aid in enthusing some students to the point of studying science at the University of Calgary.
An Open House was held on a pleasant summer evening on July 20, 1996. A slender crescent moon provided a nice target for the half-dozen terrace telesopes. About 120 people participated, about half of them youngsters. A number of very small astronomers were permitted to key in names of stars to send the ARCT and its tracking done scurrying around the sky. Talks were given by Phil Langill and Denis Leahy.
The final Open House for 1996 was held on August 24, with about 250 people attending. We were happy to see our new U of C President, Terry Whyte and his wife, Sue at the RAO on this auspicious occasion. Sandy Cross was also present along with large numbers of visitors of all ages on a pleasant and clear summer evening.
Monthly Open Houses resumed in May, 1997, but a special event was scheduled for March 29, 1997: A special Open House to view Comet HALE-BOPP was held beginning at 7:30 p.m. Successful Open Houses were held on May 31, June 28, July 26, and August 23. Although the May and June Open Houses were cool and rainy, dozens of people took part; on the pleasant July and August evenings, hundreds participated. Such events provide a very positive contribution to the community and a good way for the University of Calgary to showcase its astronomical facilities and programs. They also offer an opportunity to present the latest astronomical findings and events to the public. The Open House The Programs for the seasons 1998-2002 were equally successful, with talks by Alan Dyer, of the Calgary Science Centre, Roland Dechesne, David Fry, David Hobell, Sid Lee, Phil Langill, Alfredo Louro, Mike Mazur, Gene Milone, Ranga Sreenivasan, and Kevin and Virginia Volk, Mike Williams, among others.
Major activities were planned for the 25th Anniversary Year of the RAO. A day-long meeting celebrated the research accomplishments of the RAO over the past 25 years. The date of the meeting was Saturday, June 7, 1997. See for details.
A gift of telescope mounting components was given by Mr. Bill Burley of Calgary. Generosity such as his helps to make our programmes possible in this lean and mean age for university research.
The University of Calgary Grants Committee and the V. P. (Research) in conjunction with Research Services of the University of Calgary provided the RAOSG with a group grant to promote the RAO through the 25th Anniversary event, and through support for the Open House program and for the RAO Report to appear in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society in early 1999. Although the next department head decided that we should not be asking the V.P. Research to fund such things, volunteer work continued for a while, although they became disrupted by the extensive renovations to the RAO during the upgrade.
Finally, a major upgrade to the RAO's outreach and teaching was made possible by a provincial Science Awareness and Promotion Program. With this program and contributions from several sources, including, again, our patron Sandy Cross, a 100-seat Visitors' Centre was constructed, thanks to the architect John Brown, who organized a work-build program with his students to accomplish this result. The multiple upgrades were going well before an over-eager contractor removed the classroom before alternate power could be rerouted to th e telescope buildings, resulting in great delays in other RAO upgrades and operations. Because of this, and funding shortfalls partly due to subsequent time overruns, and partly to the fall of the Canadian dollar to ~$0.60US, The goals for the 1.8-m and 0,4-m telescopes were not fully achieved; nevertheless, the Baker-Nunn Patrol Camera was completed.
Observational astronomy and astrophysics classes have laboratories which are held at the RAO whenever possible.
Starting in 1998, Travel funds for volunteer observers were made available by the Dean of the Faculty of Science and the V.P. (Research), for which we were grateful; the department then undertook support for this program up to 2004, when this was canceled.
Number of visitors to this site to date:
times since 24 April 1998.
Prepared by: Gene Milone (milone at ucalgary.ca).
Prepared by: Gene Milone (milone at ucalgary.ca).