Spotlight on Research

Undergraduate astrophysics

The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory is operated by the Department of Physics and Astronomy. It is the department's principal teaching and research facility for observational astrophysics. The observatory's telescopes play an important role in astrophysics courses.

Students observed:

  • 1420 MHz emission from neutral hydrogen in the interstellar medium to study the rotation of the Milky Way
  • Narrow band H-alpha emission from the sun to study the dynamics of sunspots and prominences
  • Open star clusters to study the affect of the ISM on star light
  • Properties and characteristics of stars

Clark-Milone telescope

The telescope is usable over the internet. It acknowledges NSERC's PromoScience program and is central to the Universe in the Classroom educational program.

If you would like to find out how to use the telescope from your school, please contact the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory's educational program manager.

Blog entries from undergraduate researchers at the RAO

By Megan Buick

As a summer student at the RAO, I had the opportunity to meet many fascinating people including Jason Nishiyama. Jason has employed the 50 centimetre Baker-Nunn telescope for his research. This telescope was originally a camera used by the armed forces to track enemy satellites. In 1981, Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake donated the camera to the university and it was repurposed into a telescope. Originally, it was used by Robert Cardinal to track asteroids. He discovered two comets during his asteroid search project.

The Baker-Nunn is useful for finding moving objects such as asteroids and comets. It has a large field of view, producing images that have a side length of four degrees. This large, visible area means that a greater portion of the sky can be surveyed in less time, increasing the chance of spotting a moving object. However, since the field of view is so big, it can be difficult to detect the motion of any one object by eye. Jason, who operates the Baker-Nunn on open house nights at the observatory, is hoping to develop software that can analyze these images for moving objects.

Jason also works with the observatory on ways to augment the Baker-Nunn’s capabilities. Previously, he took images with different exposure times to create conversion tables. These tables compare star measurements taken with the Baker-Nunn and standard star measurements. This allows researchers to compare measurements between the Baker-Nunn and other telescopes. Also, with these measurements, guidelines were created for how long to expose an image for faint details while ensuring brighter stars are still accurately measured by the CCD camera.

Jason is also enabling the telescope to produce colour images with the director of the observatory, Phil Langill. Originally, the telescope was merely designed to track objects and had no need for colour. Colour filters must be placed in front of the full diameter of the telescope itself. Jason and Phil are currently testing theatrical gels. Like with the observatory’s other telescopes, three different filters will be used with colours in the red, green and blue wavelengths. Images taken through each of these filters would then give the information required to produce a coloured image.

Recently, Jason published a textbook on Planetary Nebulae (PNe) as part of the Institute of Physics (IOP) Concise Physics series. The text is intended for undergraduates and amateurs and introduces the basics of PNe, including what they are, how they form, their composition and their eventual fate.

By Cody Sogge

As an upper year astrophysics student, one of the questions frequently asked of me is, “What happens next?” Unlike other degrees, the applications for a astrophysics degree aren’t always immediately obvious and often require rigorous job hunting, creativity and a little bit of luck.

The industry most students are predicted to enter is that of research at a university somewhere around the globe. This includes attending graduate school to obtain both a master's and a doctorate. This typically adds between four and eight years of additional schooling. Postdoctoral scholars will then begin to apply to positions as either an assistant researcher or independent researcher in whatever their specific area of study may have been.

Even if research isn’t of interest to you, an astrophysics degree can still be an excellent choice. Students are trained extensively in high-level mathematics, computer coding and modelling, critical thinking, and complex problem solving. It is important that students posses excellent communication and writing skills, so they are able to present the results of term projects and lab reports both accurately and concisely. Students will spend at least four years developing and perfecting these highly marketable skills. Once they obtain their degree, they would be fully qualified for various positions such as data analysis, financial services, air traffic control and other careers that feature intensive problem solving skills.

An astrophysics degree provides students with the opportunity to study incredible and interesting cosmological phenomena, while also training them to be excellent problem solvers and logical thinkers. For this reason, those who posses the degree are highly sought after and extremely employable.

By Cody Sogge

Have you ever been on Stephen Avenue at night and looked up at the sky? Have you ever driven into the city from Banff, Drumheller or High River after sunset? If so, you are likely familiar with a phenomenon that has been plaguing urban areas for more than a century: light pollution. Light pollution rids the sky of observable stars, wastes energy and disturbs sleep patterns of both humans and animals.

For those who have made the journey to the RAO, you may have noticed that we are located quite far away from the university. The further away we are from the city, the darker the sky. When the RAO was established in 1972, the population of Calgary was around 400000. There were little to no issues with light pollution. However, as time went on, the city expanded. Now, the southwest corner of the city is right on our doorstep and the completion of Stoney Trail is bringing the city and its bright lights closer than ever.

While this is a growing concern for us at the RAO, the encroaching light has challenged other observatories all over Canada. The David Dunlap Observatory (DDO) and the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO) house the largest telescopes in Canada. The DDO in Toronto and DAO in Victoria have now been completely encompassed by their cities and have rendered their equipment all but inoperable. With the way the city plans to light the new ring road, this will inevitably be the fate of the RAO as well.

This doesn’t have to be the case. It is possible to build it so the amount of light pollution is minimized. This can be done by using simple shades to direct light towards the ground, using redder light (easier on the eyes and sky) and installing fewer sources of light. This will conserve energy and our beautiful Canadian night skies. For more information on light pollution, visit the International Dark Sky Association at

By Cody Sogge

People often ask what made me choose the University of Calgary, seeing as I moved across the country to pursue my degree. My answer has always remained the same - the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory provides invaluable experiences for undergraduate students. In your first year, you take regular trips to Priddis with both senior students and professors. By your second year, you are handling the telescopes personally, gathering data for projects you get to design. For our final two two years, we are expected to apply what we learn about equipment operation and data reduction in a research project for every one of our remaining astrophysics courses and potentially our undergraduate research thesis.

The number of students in these classes is relatively low, averaging around 30 students. This allows the professors to be very hands on with every one of us and permits a wide array of research to be conducted at any one time. For example, this past semester in the “Planetary Astrophysics” course, we had students observing transiting exoplanets, orbital parameters of asteroids, orbital parameters of the Galilean moons and transneptunian objects.

Throughout the duration of my undergraduate studies, I have measured the effective temperature of sunspots, determined distances and radial velocities of Globular Clusters, determined composition of spectral types of stars, observed the rotation of an asteroid using light curves and measured the atmospheric composition of Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the Moon. I have had the privilege of using the CMT, the Baker-Nunn, the ARCT, the C-14, and even the Echelle-Spectrograph. The RAO has some of the biggest and most diverse telescopes in Canada. This gives our graduates an advantage over the alumni of other institutions.

By Matthew Richards

I am currently in my fourth year of astrophysics at the University of Calgary. One of the projects I completed as part of my undergrad degree was an investigation of dark matter. I wanted to know how we can infer the existence dark matter by observing the HI emission spectrums within the Milky Way Galaxy. The data I used was gathered by the RAO’s radio telescope. I measured the motion of hydrogen gas clouds to demonstrate how the velocity changes depending on distance from the centre of the galaxy. The effects of gravity relate to the amount of matter and directly indicate velocity. I found that the HI gas appears to move clouds that exist in the galaxy. These clouds orbit faster the further they are away from the centre of the galaxy. These results are inconsistent my expectations. My conclusion is that there must be some other matter non-visible that is causing this unusually high velocity. Maybe dark matter is at the root of the mysterious results.

The RAO provides a haven of knowledge towards those that seek it. To me, the RAO is a place where my fascination in astronomy can be explored and realized through the tools available. It provides education and reverence towards looking up at the night sky. I am there for every open house helping with the customer service end of things. I am so thankful that I can be a small part of this great place. You don’t need to be an astrophysicist to realize just how minuscule we are in the scheme of things.

When people think of astronomy, they often picture big telescopes located high on a mountain. The RAO embodies this picturesque scene and is located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The A.R. Cross Telescope (ARCT) is the second largest telescope in Canada with a whopping 1.83 meter diameter primary mirror.

The ARCT was designed and built by the University of Calgary in the early 1980s. The field of view is very small and this necessitates precise tracking. A CCD camera along with a focal reducer was added that could image a larger field of view. That optical system works well, but field rotation introduced by the unique Alt-Alt mount makes the data acquisition and analysis very challenging. An attempt was made to build a camera de-rotator but the heavy LN2 camera necessitated hefty parts that were too expensive to purchase. Although all of these challenges were anticipated from the outset, the time, energy and cost needed to overcome them were much higher than anticipated. Our technician Jim Pake is working hard on solutions.

The last research project using the ARCT was conducted by Dr. Gene Milone. He observed the unusual binary system known as Eta Aurigae. The purposes of this project were to monitor infrared outbursts during the two component’s close encounter, which happens over a few weeks every forty years.

Thanks to the prevailing winds at 1275 meters above sea level, the RAO is frequently under dry air conditions. This makes infrared measurements possible. Also, the ARCT possesses a sophisticated chopping secondary mirror. This instrument sees in quick, alternating succession the star of interest (plus surrounding sky) and a blank piece of empty sky near the star. The blank sky provides a measurement of the infrared background. Subtracting the blank image from the star (plus sky) measurement reveals the infrared brightness of the star alone.

The one ARCT improvement project that was hugely successful was the addition of an eyepiece. The Sandy Cross Telescope is the star-of-the-show when it comes to public outreach events. During open house events, people love to see the big telescope in action.

See more research in action. Visit the Department of Physics and Astronomy