It turns out the corpse of a star looks not unlike a donut covered in powdered sugar. This celestial shrapnel is known as a white dwarf, and because it’s invisible to the naked eye, an utter delight to witness. Luckily for us earthlings, two years ago SFU cut the ribbon for the Trottier Observatory: a space in the heart of the Burnaby Mountain campus for the community to discover our solar system.
Every week the science department hosts star gazing parties open to the public. If you’re struggling to even afford a glazed donut from Lucky’s, don’t worry, these events are 100% free. Their mandate revolves around public outreach so learning about space can be accessible to non-scientists. This was important to Doctor Howard Trottier, a physics professor at SFU and founder of their Starry Nights program.
“Of all the sciences, astronomy is very uniquely placed to reach out to the public because it’s a visual medium in part. You look through a telescope and you see nature yourself, you don’t need someone to become between you and that experience. So the idea of getting kids and families out to view it can be a very powerful experience,” he said in an interview on Fraser Cain’s Weekly Space Hangout.
Standing there above the city while the sun dips behind the surrounding mountains, you truly feel alone with the sky. Most of the project’s funding went towards the design of the space which is clear as soon as it gets dark. Concrete blocks that run across the plaza project beams of six different colours, representing a spectra of elements integral to astronomy. Also illuminating the courtyard is a gallery of seasonal star charts, which is lovely from a visual standpoint alone.
Everyone that visits has the opportunity to peek into the ¼ million dollar telescope. Standing in line builds the type of anticipation a 19-year old may have waiting outside the Roxy on country night. It’s a small room, allowing only so many people in at once, but there’s usually 10-12 amateur astronomers from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada set up with telescopes around the plaza. You can casually stroll up to any one of them and walk away having seen Saturn’s glorious rings.
SFU students are also there to guide you through the experience. Take Kyle Dally, for example, who studies physics at the university. He takes ridiculously complicated theories and explains them in a way that even the kids can grasp—seriously, ask him how black holes are made then prepare for a mini live action episode of Cosmos.
The times of the star parties change depending on daylight hours, so the best way to stay in the loop is by joining the mailing list, or checking their website or twitter feed @SFUTrottObs. Weather also plays a big role in visibility, so their twitter offers up-to-date info on cancellations. Because, you know, it tends to rain from time to time in this corner of the blue planet.