SFU observatory hosts Pluto viewing party

The first high quality images of the dwarf planet reveal Pluto’s heart. - NASA

Simon Fraser University’s Trottier Observatory was alight with activity on July 14.

Dozens of people gathered late at night to celebrate the unprecedented close-up pictures of Pluto acquired by NASA’s New Horizons probe. The crowd was made up of professional and amateur astronomers, as well as families and students, all hoping for a glimpse of what was happening billions of kilometres away.

New Horizons finally arrived at Pluto nine years after the probe was launched in 2006. The close encounter provided new images and information about the dwarf planet, revealing striking patterns on its surface and removing layers of uncertainty about its size and mass.

During the same night, the Trottier Observatory showed visitors breathtaking views of various celestial beauties, focusing on Pluto. Open to the public since April, the observatory has served as a staging ground for other telescopes to be set up in the courtyard. There were line-ups to see the ‘all-star’ cast of the night sky, which included Saturn, Mizar, and Alcor.

Just beyond the circle of telescopes, the courtyard glowed with coloured light from LEDs installed in the benches. Each bench represented an element and had a unique pattern of light that corresponded to the spectrum astronomers use to interpret objects in space.

Howard Trottier, SFU physics professor, expressed his excitement over the event and the completed observatory.

“It transcends anything that I had imagined,” Trottier said, adding that it was “fantastic that people are getting so excited about [the Pluto flyby].”

The new information has raised many questions about the origin of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, which are extremely different despite being locked in orbit and sharing an atmosphere. A dark spot discovered on the top of Charon has been termed “Mordor” by NASA. In an interesting and adorable twist, there appears to be a large feature on Pluto’s surface that looks like a heart.

Trottier explained that these mysteries remind people “that we know a lot about the solar system, but there’s still a lot that we don’t know.”

Aside from the historic event, Trottier contended that there is something else that Canadians in particular should be looking forward to next in the world of astronomy.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), currently being built in Hawaii, will have its mirror and enclosure built by Port Coquitlam-based Dynamic Structures. The reflecting mirror, that will measure 30 metres across, is half the length of an NHL hockey rink. The Canadian government announced in April that it would contribute $243.5 million to the telescope’s construction, and that Canada will get 20 per cent of telescope time.

Trottier anticipates the TMT’s completion in the early 2020s, saying that it will “make the Hubble look like a toy.”

For now, anyone interested can take advantage of the Starry Nights group at SFU to glance upwards at the night sky. Somewhere out there is the little machine which showed us, literally, that Pluto has a heart.