Learning about the wonders of the stars at Starry Nights

This event is open to anyone, regardless of astronomy experience

The star charts at the Trottier Observatory illuminated at night by multicoloured lights
Catching the night with a bunch of star enthusiasts. PHOTO: Krystal Chan / The Peak

By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

On a clear evening in February, the Trottier Observatory held its first in-person Starry Nights event in 2022. As the sun dipped and the night sky revealed the winter constellations, it was clear the break from events open to the public did nothing to discourage the long line of people who had come to admire the stars. 

I had never been to a Starry Night event before and knew very little about stars. But Starry Nights are evening parties meant for every kind of star enthusiast, even those who did not yet know they were star enthusiasts. That was reflected in tonight’s crowd as amateur astronomers and curious people alike gathered in front of the observatory to take a closer look at our neighbouring celestial bodies. 

For the last two years, the events have largely been live-streamed on YouTube, often alongside the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) as observatory volunteers taught attendees about the stars they were looking at. RASC is a society aiming to help the general public learn more about astronomy and Starry Nights is one of their outreach events.

COVID-19 procedures meant people needed to be masked, vaccinated, and only one person could be in the observatory at a time. Luckily, I was first in line, so I got a very early evening look at Castor. Castor is a star in the Gemini constellation and was one of the brightest stars in the sky that night. The volunteer helping people inside the observatory kindly encouraged me to return to the line 30 minutes later to look at a different object.

Outside, the line extended around the Terry Fox statue. There, a RASC volunteer was talking to everyone about the stars we could see in the Northern Hemisphere. She pointed at Orion’s foot, where the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, shone. Marking each constellation outside with everyone felt special. The line was long, but the kids waiting were transfixed by Hayley’s words. I felt like I was a part of this lovely moment where people were rediscovering and falling in love with the sky.

Ivana Kovacevik, a physics student and a volunteer at the Trottier Observatory approached me to help answer some questions about the observatory. 

Firstly, Kovacevik explained the objects shown every Starry Night depended on what was prominent in the sky at the time. “We like to go with a planet or a bright star to get interest peaking, and as hours go by, we usually see two to three objects,” she said.

That night, Kovacevik said we were hoping to see the Andromeda galaxy. For faraway objects like the Andromeda galaxy, the scope needed to remain in the Northern hemisphere.

Standing in the viewing plaza, we started talking about the history of the observatory.

The observatory, which is only eight years old, is named after Dr. Howard Trottier, a former physics professor at SFU and his brother Lorne Trottier. But what surprised me was the dispute on how the building was designed.

“Howard wanted the dome to be round, like a normal observatory,” Kovacevik explained. This did not fit SFU’s vision. The architects envisioned a boxier observatory where the roof would open up, like a screen. “They came to the agreement that if they were to somehow make it as boxy as possible around the dome itself, then that’s okay.” The observatory is, indeed, surrounded by classically boxed-in concrete. 

Kovacevik then pointed out some of the easter eggs of the observatory. She pointed at the multicoloured pillars in the plaza. “That’s to represent spectroscopy,” she said. As light passes through different gasses, the reactions correspond to certain elements and that’s visualized by the colours on these pillars. 

“We have the spectrographs of the most important and abundant elements needed to create life,” Kovacevik explained. While I had noticed these beautiful lights at night before, I did not realize they were chosen specifically to represent something so meaningful. I felt more appreciative of the design that went into the observatory. 

Having RASC members and the Trottier Observatory volunteers meant it was very easy to get any question I had answered.

Kovacevik said many volunteers, including herself, found this opportunity through PHYS 190, Introduction to Astronomy. 

“Being in this group allowed me to learn not only background information on what we’re looking at but also technicalities like how a reflective telescope works or what programs we use.” 

The telescope the RASC volunteers had brought gave a closer look at a familiar friend: the moon. “We have the advantage of looking at very faraway objects that you can’t see on a normal telescope, but they have the advantage of seeing something like the moon in its entirety.” 

The telescope was set to look at the moon’s terminator, which is where the shadow of the moon marks the line between night and day. It’s funny — I had seen so many pictures of the moon’s craters, but having my glasses poke the viewing lens of the telescope and seeing the scope of the moon and all its dimples made me feel soft. This nearby celestial object we see every day looked different that night, especially after I’d seen a kid proudly declare he’d be an astronaut after running from the telescope.

Starry Nights are all about igniting moments like these: discovering a love for science and the night sky we share. The volunteers were truly passionate amateur astronomers. Although I wasn’t able to see the Andromeda galaxy that night, their knowledge and interest make me want to come and gaze dreamily at the sky soon!

Pending clear weather, Starry Nights will be held every Friday night from 7–10 p.m. Students can get involved with the program by contacting them at sfuscienceoutreach@sfu.ca

Trottier Observatory also has a free telescope loyalty program. If you are an avid fan of these star parties, you may be able to claim a telescope in the future. The website advises you to contact sfuscienceoutreach@sfu.ca for more information.