Inflation of a scientific balloon in Fort Providence, NWT, carrying both X-ray and neutron detectors.

RAO Weather Balloons and Chasing Eclipses

George Coyne
RAO sundial
Mary Dover, George Coyne, J Palmer

Alan Clark’s Reminiscences of Conversations about the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory.

               Over the years, occasional comments or observations by visitors and staff at the observatory have left indelible memories and deserve to be recorded. 

            My first recollection of a discussion that had important implications for the future of RAO was at the hearing with the Foothills Municipal District authorities to obtain permission to build the observatory. I had accompanied Gerry Tersmette, the Project Manager from the University’s Buildings and Grounds Department, to provide answers to questions on the proposed observatory development. After some general discussion by the committee, two questions were asked and answered that led both to some laughter and to approval of the project. The first, and very reasonable, question was “What will the observatory and the proposed dome look like from the road?”. Knowing that much of this county was rural in nature with farming as a major part of its economy, I replied that “It would look like a very short silo” which led to immediate knowing nods. The second question was “If you were to use your telescope to look at neighbouring farms and houses, would this be potentially intrusive?”. My answer was that “It would be difficult for the main telescope to point below the horizon and anyway, the resulting view would be upside down, the telescope being designed for astronomical use.” And again, this answer seemed to satisfy the committee and approval was readily given. Our relationship with the county and particularly our neighbours has been wonderful ever since, with the occasional invitation to join us for a barbeque on the observatory grounds or for an observing evening with the telescopes.

            My next memory was of comments made spontaneously by the land agent who had secured the gift of land for us on the occasion of the official opening on January 7th, 1972. He arrived somewhat late and joined me on the outside of the group of invitees inside the classroom as the distinguished guest, Dr Margaret Burbidge, ended her remarks and moved to unveil the large sundial that had been designed by our engineer Tim Kirkham and built in the Physics Department workshop. As she did so, he exclaimed “What on Earth is that?” at which I whispered “A sundial”. This did not entirely satisfy him since he asked what it would be used for and, when I told him that it would tell us the time, he exclaimed in a voice of doubt and disbelief “Can you not afford a decent clock?” He joined the rest of the gathering to admire this work of art and agreed that it would make a fine symbol to remember this occasion.

            Then there was the truck driver who was travelling south from Edmonton to Calgary but had stopped in Red Deer specifically to call us at the observatory to report the sighting of a persistent object that was tracking him as he drove down the highway. To him, this very bright object over the Rocky Mountains was a UFO, moving alongside him, flashing blue, green and red, slowing down when he did and keeping pace with him. When he finally became alarmed enough to stop, it also appeared to hover in the distance and watch him. We also had been looking at this object, the planet Venus, as it approached the mountains, where the Earth’s atmosphere produced shimmering of the image. The fact that Venus appeared to keep pace with him was a consequence of his motion. We attempted to reassure him this was the perfectly normal appearance of a bright planet. When he did not seem to be convinced with this explanation, we told him to go and get a coffee at the restaurant and come out again in about 20 minutes when this object would set behind the mountains, content that we had explained this phenomenon to him. His last remark before ringing off convinced us that we had not done so because he said, with some hesitation, “Are you in touch with Them?”

            The opportunity arose during winter to offer to take Sandy and Ann Cross to visit the telescopes on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. They had a winter home on Kauai and I was joining my colleague David Naylor and his team from the University of Lethbridge for a combined observing run with their Fourier Transform Spectrometer on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope to measure both solar and planetary sub-millimeter spectra. Sandy and Ann responded almost immediately to my invitation and were enthusiastic, so I arranged for them to see Canada’s premier telescope at that time, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. They flew over to spend a couple of nights in Hilo and we drove to the Mid-Level Facility at the 9,000-foot level where we had lunch with a group of astronomers before venturing up to the 14,000-foot level to the CFHT. The director, Rene Racine of the University of Montreal had kindly offered to welcome us at the telescope and met us on the observing floor of this superb telescope. Sandy was impressed with the sight and in his usual forthright way, he walked straight over to Rene and said “Hello, I’m Sandy Cross, who are you?” and, after chatting to Rene for a minute or two, he turned to me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “We’ve got one of these, haven’t we, Alan!!”

            One distinguished guest to the Rothney Observatory was Dr George Coyne, who had been instrumental in our acquiring a mirror for the original 1.5 meter telescope. George, a Jesuit priest, was the Director of the observatory in the Vatican in Rome and the Pope’s personal astronomer. He was also a Professor in the Astronomy Department of the University of Arizona and the director of the Vatican’s  1.8 meter telescope on Mt Graham in Arizona, often referred to as Vatican West. We invited him to join us on the occasion of the opening of the new observatory building in 1983 when senior members of the University including the Chancellor and the President could formally thank Mr Cross for his generous support of this project. We had asked George if he would dedicate the telescope but during this ceremony he confessed that he had never before been called upon to dedicate a telescope, though he had christened and married people and had conducted funerals, …as he put it, “Hatchings, Matchings and Dispatchings”. He therefore had decided to confine himself to relating one or two stories of the first meeting of the new pope with the Italian press. Apparently, he would be asked one or two rather trivial questions before proceeding to more searching questions that would allow the pope to expand upon more meaningful matters. The first of these questions was “How many windows are there in the Vatican?” at which the pope had to admit that he had no idea, whereupon another reporter asked the question “How many people work at the Vatican?”, to which the pope replied very promptly “About half of them!”. George did continue to dedicate the telescope after which the whole assembled party moved to the home of Sandy’s sister Mary Dover for a wonderful lunch. George later expressed delight at the conversations he had with Mary and Sandy on this occasion.

            We had several wonderful examples of the love of the land and of nature that Sandy and Ann, and his sister Mary, had over the years. On the above occasion, Mary heard us expressing concern that developments around the observatory had disturbed the family of mountain bluebirds that had nested around our buildings almost since the very beginning. On the very next day, under instructions from Mary, her woodman arrived with several sections of tree trunk which had holes suitable for bluebird nesting and instructed us to attach them to our fence.  Sadly, the bluebirds never used these tree trunks, though they must nest very close to the RAO because they spend a lot of their time around the observatory every year. On another occasion when Sandy visited us, I was answering one of his questions about our annual report, a copy of which we sent to him almost every year, and I noticed that he had become somewhat distracted. Apparently, he had spotted the numerous mole holes across our grass and preceded to explain in great detail what traps to buy and where to place them for maximum effect to reduce their damage on our property.

            We had another occasion to enjoy George Coyne’s company when he was invited to present a TED-YYC talk in Calgary and we discovered that he had a free day. Gene and I and our wives Helen and Jean met him for brunch and then Jean and I took him to Lake Louise. It was a magnificent summer day and he was enthralled by the beauty of this area. Eventually, we began to drive back to his hotel where he was to meet with a group of students and I suggested that he might like to take a nap on the drive home. He gladly settled down and all went well until we emerged from the mountains to be faced with a magnificent double rainbow. Instinctively, I slowed down in order to take a photograph of this wonderful sight, whereupon George awoke and, after listening to my apologies for waking him, he asked “How did you arrange this for me, Alan?” and laughed heartily when I retorted “You are closer to such matters than am I, George!”

            I am certain that there are many more interesting stories to tell about conversations that have taken place over these many years at the observatory and there are probably many tales to be told of observing difficulties and of happier occasions of discovery and satisfaction with observing projects on the various instruments. The stories that give us the most satisfaction come from ex-students who often have vivid memories of clear nights and well-behaved equipment when they were just beginning their careers.

Questar telescope
Lear Jet exterior
Lear Jet interior

The First Rothney Astrophysical Observatory Telescope by Alan Clark

It may come as a surprise to many RAO staff that the first telescope used at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory was a venerable Questar 3.5-inch diameter telescope. It was used by Drs Eugene Milone and Alan Clark in 1971 to determine the alignment of the piers for the new 0.6m Astronomical Equipment Ltd telescope. The Questar was mounted on a sturdy Imhof tripod with its base carefully levelled at a position chosen for the South pier of the telescope. The Pole Star was then found, and the telescope elevation was lowered to the horizontal position and a stake was placed in the ground to mark the required position of the massive North pier. It was a cold night but the true value of the gift of the land to the University by Mr. Sandy Cross was immediately obvious, with a magnificent view of the dark southern skies flanked by the Rocky Mountains to the west, but with perhaps a hint of the light pollution from the city that would begin to haunt astronomers at the observatory as time progressed.

            But perhaps what is equally interesting is the history of this Questar telescope, since it goes back almost to the very beginnings of the study of space science and astronomy in Calgary. It was purchased in 1962 by Dr Brian Wilson, the leader of the Cosmic Ray group in the Physics Department. Dr Wilson had established the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray station on behalf of the National Research Council in 1956 to study the high-energy particles that come from deep space and the influence of the solar wind upon these particles. This telescope was to be used to observe the July 20th 1963 total solar eclipse from Fort Providence, NWT, in support of a balloon flight of both X-ray and neutron detectors, in an attempt to detect both X-rays and neutrons from the Sun by observing the lowering of their flux hitting Earth when the Moon obscured the Sun. Solar X-rays had been discovered some years earlier but solar neutrons had not been detected at that time. This flight was made under the direction of Dr Clifford Anger, who had joined the department in 1962 to begin to study the northern lights by measuring the X-rays produced when the electrons that excite atoms of air to glow to produce the visible aurora are slowed down. X-rays produced in this way at about 100 km can penetrate to balloon altitudes of 30 km and represent a more direct indication of electron properties than the visible light.  The combination of such relatively inexpensive balloon-altitude observations and direct measurement of the incoming particle stream by more expensive rockets proved to be a valuable approach to auroral studies. The results of these experiments were not conclusive. Interpretation of the results from the prototype neutron detector, designed by Dr Wilson and his student George Baird and built by technician Charlie Hanson to fly in a rocket, were made difficult by telemetry problems. The X-ray flux DID reach a minimum during totality but significant fluxes of auroral X-rays from daytime aurora on either side of the eclipse time made interpretation difficult. Nevertheless, the Questar telescope produced excellent images of this eclipse from the shores of the mighty Mackenzie River. The whole expedition team of about 20 people was royally housed for two weeks in an ex-hospital and school by nuns and a brother and the balloon team was pleased to provide some help in return, including the building of a battery charger for the nun’s radio, the tuning of their piano in a somewhat amateur manner by musically inclined staff and numerous other useful tasks. One of this team was Dr Alan Clark, a new Post-Doctoral Fellow, who had joined Cliff Anger and his auroral team in 1962.

            The Questar became useful in the Senior Laboratories under Arthur Knudsen’s care and was used again on several subsequent eclipse expeditions by qualified amateur astronomers, particularly in 1972 by John Findlay, again in the North-West Territories. It became the telescope of choice for students in solar astronomy courses, and was used both on campus and at RAO, being portable and having both excellent optics and equatorial drive.

            Perhaps one of the last uses of this venerable Questar telescope in eclipse photography, sadly not very successful because of circumstances, was when it was used in 1983 by Dr Wilson, by now the President of the University of Queensland in Australia, to attempt eclipse photography through a small side window of a Lear jet being flown over Papua New Guinea from Darwin, Australia, just 40 days short of the 20th anniversary of its use in northern Canada. This was part of an expedition by Alan Clark and his graduate student Rita Boreiko to observe the eclipse at infra-red wavelengths that are strongly absorbed in the atmosphere. They were particularly interested in the thickness of a layer of the molecular gas CO above the visible solar surface. This and subsequent experiments established this height quite precisely and these results have contributed to our knowledge of this temperature-minimum region of the solar atmosphere. One more coincidence is that the gyro-controlled telescope used for the IR experiment in the Lear jet was designed by Douglas Aircraft Company for an airborne expedition under the eclipse at Fort Providence in 1963 and was subsequently used in both NASA Lear and Convair aircraft by this team.

Modern telescopes have taken over from basic instruments like the Questar 3.5-inch telescope, but its optical quality and portability were major assets. We are indebted to this instrument for its many contributions to the development of the RAO.

1972 eclipse