Experience the cosmos online with York’s observatory team

The Orion Nebula - Allan I. Carswell Observatory
The Orion Nebula – Allan I. Carswell Observatory
The Orion Nebula - Allan I. Carswell Observatory
The Orion Nebula – Allan I. Carswell Observatory

Like Earth’s Moon, the planet Venus goes through phases. It’s currently in a “half phase” and is heading into a “crescent phase” that it will reach by the end of April. This means that, as Venus gets closer to Earth, its apparent size in our night sky is increasing, something that happens once every two years.

“It’s unmistakable,” said Paul Delaney, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Allan I. Carswell Astronomical Observatory at York University. “It’s like a searchlight.”

He says that on a clear night, stargazers can currently expect to see Venus just after sunset, 40 degrees above the west horizon.

Paul Delaney with the new telescope, situated at The Deer Lick Group Allan I. Carswell Observatory
Paul Delaney

Delaney says it feels strange not to be watching it through the new one-metre telescope at the York observatory, currently closed as part of social distancing measures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Though he admits he feels a pull from the observatory on clear nights, he advises that most people should be able to see the phases of Venus quite well with binoculars.

Delaney owns a smaller personal telescope at home. “I haven’t gotten it out yet,” he joked, citing the switch to online teaching and upcoming exams “but if this goes on much longer, I’ll have to dig it out of the garage.”

While the campus closure has prevented use of the telescope and halted regular activities and in-person viewings for Delaney and the undergraduate team running the observatory, they are continuing to give the York University community opportunities to enjoy benefits of the telescope and the virtual observatory experience by maintaining their weekly Online Public Viewings (OPV).

Each Monday from 9 to 10 p.m., York astronomy students moderate an online chat and Q-and-A for astronomy enthusiasts of all levels to discuss images taken by the telescope at the Carswell Observatory.

The Crab Nebula - Allan I. Carswell Observatory
The Crab Nebula – Allan I. Carswell Observatory

Under normal circumstances, and weather permitting, participants would have the opportunity to view live images taken through the one-metre telescope – “like a request line” Delaney explained – and watch astronomy students process the pictures in real time, while chatting with experts (usually York faculty and alumni) about the astronomic principles at work. All of this happens in tandem with the production of an astronomy show, YorkUniverse, which broadcasts simultaneously on Internet radio.

Thankfully York’s astronomers have saved up for a rainy day – and apparently for a campus closure as well – as they are able to continue hosting the weekly event remotely using hundreds of archived images already taken by the telescope.

Sunna Withers
Sunna Withers

For third-year astronomy student Sunna Withers, who has worked and conducts variable star research with the observatory, hosting the weekly viewing while practicing social distancing has provided a sense of continuity and community. “Everything else has stopped,” she explained, “so I’ve enjoyed having the OPV running to keep connecting with people I work with, learning new things and staying involved in astronomy, but from a safe distance.”

Withers encourages members of the community to check out the OPV. “Chat is a lot of fun,” she said. “We have people that log on from the York University area, but we even have a couple people logging on from different countries.”

Chat participants have the opportunity to submit their own photos for discussion and pose questions about themes of the day. Radio listeners can enjoy segments dedicated to the history of astronomy and an overview of significant current news and events.

Delaney, who is spending time away from the observatory working on three papers, is considering increasing the frequency of the OPV in the future, once students have had a chance to complete exams and adjust to their new academic environment.

The Deer Lick Group - Allan I. Carswell Observatory
The Deer Lick Group – Allan I. Carswell Observatory

In the meantime, while Withers misses the one-metre telescope, she is reminded that, along with the weekly OPV, many cosmological events are more accessible to many of us than we realize.

“You can get clear amazing views of the moon with binoculars,” she explained. “You can keep an eye out for transits of the International Space Station. Those are always really fun to watch.”

“You don’t need expensive telescopes to do astronomy in your backyard,” she added.

Do you have a story to share about how you are coping, or what you are doing differently, during the COVID-19 pandemic? Email us at yfile@yorku.ca.