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Dominion Astrophysical Observatory

Dominion Astrophysical Observatory
Alternative names Observatoire fédéral d'astrophysique
General information
Current tenants National Research Council
Opening 1918
Design and construction
Architect Edgar Lewis Horwood
Architecture firm Dominion Architect of Canada
Official name Dominion Astrophysical Observatory National Historic Site of Canada
Designated 2008

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, located on Observatory Hill, in Saanich, British Columbia,[1] was completed in 1918 by the Canadian government. The Dominion Architect responsible for the building was Edgar Lewis Horwood.[2] The main instrument is the 72 inch (1.83 meter) aperture Plaskett telescope, proposed and designed by John S. Plaskett in 1910 with the support of the International Union for Cooperation in Solar Research. It was planned to be the largest telescope in the world but delays meant it was completed and saw "first light" on May 6, 1918, 6 months after the 100-inch Hooker telescope (2.5 m) at Mount Wilson Observatory.[3]

The observatory has been designated a National Historic Site of Canada as it is a world-renowned facility where many discoveries about the nature of the Milky Way were made, and it was one of the world’s main astrophysical research centres until the 1960s.[4]


  • Centre of the Universe 1
  • Telescope construction 2
  • Use 3
  • Plaskett telescope contemporaries on commissioning 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Centre of the Universe

Centre of the Universe was the public interpretive centre for the observatory that was regularly open to the public between May and September. The centre featured interactive exhibits about astronomy, the work of the observatory and its parent organization, the NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics. There were also tours of the telescope and programs in the planetarium and video theatre. The Centre was closed by the Federal Government in August 2013, claiming financial reasons as the cost.[5] MLA Lana Popham is acquiring signatures on a hard copy petition that will be presented by her colleagues in the House of Commons.[6]

The Friends of the Saanich Observatory continue to host public star-gazing events at the observatory.[7]

Telescope construction

The Plaskett telescope in 1920

The building that houses the telescope was built by McAlpine-Robertson Company of Vancouver for a price of $75,000. Both the building and dome, made by Warner and Swasey Co, are double walled.

The glass mirror, 73 inches in diameter and 12 inches (30 cm) thick, weighs approximately 4340 lb. (1970 kilograms) and was made by the Saint-Gobain company in their Charleroi glass works in Antwerp, Belgium and shipped only a week before the start of World War I. It was then ground in the United States at the John A. Brashear company in Pittsburgh. The mirror had to be reground twice, once due to a mysterious scratch and the 2nd time due to a flaw in the grinding. This added 2 years to the completion time of the telescope, pushing the date back to 1918. The completed mirror was hauled up Little Saanich Mountain by horse and wagon.


Following completion, Plaskett remained the head of the observatory until 1935.

A spectrograph is fitted to the Cassegrain focus and an imaging CCD is attached to the Newtonian focus.

In 1962, a 48" optical telescope was added to the observatory. The telescope, ordered in 1957, was made by Grubb Parsons of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. Its Coude focus is used with a room sized spectrograph.

In 1995, the observatory was made the headquarters of the NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, which operates several Canadian telescopes, both optical and radio. The NRC collaborates with international partners such as the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope.

The telescopes are in constant use today and are open for visitors year round. An interpretive centre called the Centre of the Universe was opened in 2002 but unfortunately closed in 2013 due to budgetary reasons.

As of January 2014, the current (acting) director is Dr Dennis R. Crabtree.

Plaskett telescope contemporaries on commissioning

The Plaskett missed becoming the largest telescope in the World, but remained the second largest until the 74 inch (188 cm) reflector at David Dunlap Observatory in 1935 (also in Canada) debuted.

Top 2 in 1918:

# Name /
Image Aperture Altitude First
Special advocate
1 Hooker Telescope
Mount Wilson Obs.
100 inch
254 cm
1742 m
(5715 ft)
1917 George Ellery Hale
Andrew Carnegie
2 Plaskett telescope
Dominion Astrophysical Obs.
72 inch
182 cm
230 m
(755 ft)
1918 John S. Plaskett

The next largest were the Harvard College Observatory 60 inch and the Mt. Wilson 60-inch Hale.

See also


  1. ^ BCGNIS entry "Observatory Hill"
  2. ^ Edgar Lewis Horwood
  3. ^ Plaskett, J., Publications Astronomical Society Pacific 30, 267, 1918
  4. ^ Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. Canadian Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
  5. ^ "Centre of the Universe". National Research Council Canada. Retrieved 7 May 2015. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Official site". Friends of the Saanich Observatory. Retrieved 7 May 2015. 

External links

  • Official Site
  • Dominion Astrophysical Observatory Clear Sky Clock Forecasts of observing conditions.
  • District of Saanich Significant Buildings - scroll down the see the building
  • Paper by John S. Plaskett on the construction of the DAO
  • Paper about 48" telescope
  • Richard A. Jarrell, The Instrument was Instrumental: Plaskett's Telescope and Canadian Astronomy between the wars
  • John S. Plaskett, History of Astronomy in British Columbia
  • Helen Sawyer Hogg, Memories of the Plaskett Era of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory 1931–1934
  • Photo of DAO, 1920, U. Wash Digital Collections

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