Starry Nights keeps the wonder of the cosmos alive

A midsummer night’s sky remains explored by the Trottier Observatory’s stargazing events

Illustration: RESLUS / The Peak

By: Madeleine Chan, Staff Writer

You may have noticed a shiny, domed building on SFU’s Burnaby campus while walking to and from the upper bus loop. Sadly, that area’s been cluttered with construction debris the past year, and I couldn’t even tell you what it looks like now. Regardless, that obscure building is the Trottier Observatory, home to a giant telescope. 

The Trottier Observatory itself is named after Professor Howard Trottier, who is known for his education and research on astronomy in the physics department. He usually hosts the Starry Nights events at the observatory where the public is invited to gaze upon the stars and learn about astronomy. 

This semester, they’ve transitioned the in-person events to livestreams on YouTube. The latest one was on July 10 and was the second socially distanced starry night event of the semester, but the first that I’ve ever attended in all my four years at SFU. And now that I have, I wish that I had attended more.

The livestream started at 10:30 p.m. with an introduction from Joanna Woo, host of the event. Woo is an astrophysicist, and a lecturer with the physics department. The stream was set up to have three small screens of live footage of the telescope and two views of the campus sky, along with a screen share of the program Woo was using to capture the night sky. Despite the late hour, she had an immediate excitement in her voice that made her passion about astronomy very clear. She later clarified that she is not a morning person, and that “staying up late is more [her] thing,” which I found both relatable and very apt for an astronomer. 

The first object, or space phenomenon, that Woo showed us was the Ring Nebula. It looked like a circular, rainbow light refraction — the kind that you might see when light passes through glass. She explained that nebulae are simply remnants of a dying star that has burned up all of its oxygen, and that this is what our sun will look like in the far, far future. Some other objects that we saw were a globular star cluster made of mostly red giant stars, a nebula that looks like the inner half of an apple, the Andromeda Galaxy, and Saturn itself.

Between every object, Woo brought up an interactive star map that marked all of the constellations, planets, nebulae, and more with various numberings. It was so cool how she could just pick any of them and the telescope would adjust its position to see it — not to mention that you could also see the telescope move in real time right beside it. Even though some of the objects that she visited were obscured by cloud cover, I still enjoyed simply viewing the map and watching the telescope move to capture it. 

We also got to see Jupiter and its four Galilean moons. Seeing our solar system’s largest planet as a less-than-penny-sized dot on my screen was somehow so nostalgic. It took me back to the wonder and excitement about stellar objects I had in grade two when I did a project on Neptune, and reminded me of the calm I still feel when I can see constellations through the city’s light pollution.

Throughout the night people were also asking a lot of genuine and inquisitive questions in the chat about the phenomena. Even though half the time I didn’t really know what they were talking about, I still enjoyed the excited learning that was happening. It made me wish I took that PHYS 190 astronomy elective that everyone always raves about so I could learn more about the sky that I spend so much time staring up at.

More than anything, I felt bad for Woo because a lot of the images weren’t rendering or were obscured by clouds. Woo seemed disappointed by this as well, and even apologized for the bad stargazing weather. But then she said something that really stuck with me:

“It’s actually kind of nice to have things that are not in our control sometimes. We do have things all lined up so well in our lives, and sometimes it’s healthy to be humbled by the fact that there are many things in our lives we can’t control, including the weather.”

Woo concluded the night with going back to Jupiter, even though it was now obscured by clouds. As she answered questions and started to wrap up the night, the clouds serendipitously parted and we got to see Jupiter one last time. It was a fitting end to a night of stellar exploration and education. The chat and Woo’s strong desire to see something beyond, to explore beyond the confines of their own preview, was so refreshing to see in the short-sightedness of our fast-paced way of life, and was what made this event so special. 

Starry Nights is a great way to jump into astronomy, or just be an avid star-appreciator like me.

If you missed the event and want to take an hour and a half to just stargaze and learn a bit about space, you can watch the livestream on the SFU Faculty of Science YouTube channel. As for me, I’ll be eagerly watching their Twitter (@sfu_science) to be updated on their next, wonderful night “under” the stars.