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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa shuts program giving kids access to Canada’s largest telescope

Greg Fahlman, General Manager, NRC-Herzberg, Astronomy and Astrophysics programs, inside the The Centre of the Universe Astronomy Education Centre, with the Wray Telescope, circa 1880, as well as wall displays. The federal government announced that The Centre of the Universe would close by summerâs end due to financial cutbacks.

Diana Nethercott

The new industry focus of the National Research Council, announced last month by the Harper government, has led to the demise of a public education program that allowed tens of thousands of students to get their hands on Canada's largest telescope to explore the science of the night sky.

The Centre of the Universe, perched on top of Victoria's Observatory Hill, is slated to be mothballed at the end of August, after a dozen years of public education programs. The centre costs about $270,000 annually to run and only brought in $47,000 in revenues. The cost adds up to a small fraction of the NRC's annual budget of roughly $882-million.

The decision reflects the new priorities of the NRC, which in May was rebranded with a new slogan – Open for Business – and a new focus, to work with Canadian industries to bridge technology gaps.

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Charles Drouin, NRC spokesman, said about 10,000 people visited the centre each year. The mostly school-age visitors can tour the telescope, learn about Canada's role in space exploration, and delve into the world of supernova remnants, quasars and black holes. In addition to education programs, the facility hosts public skygazing during exceptional celestial events such as the "supermoon" last weekend.

"We are very proud of the work that went on, it has been a success," Mr. Drouin said in an interview Monday. "It was a really nice piece of our programing. But due to priorities in the budget, senior managers decided to close it."

Chris Gainor, national vice-president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, said the public programs provided visitors with a unique exposure to science and engineering. The centre is attached to the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, where scientists are conducting world-class research.

"The people there are working on things like the Hubble Space Telescope. People don't realize how important Victoria is to the world of astronomy," he said. "The Centre of the Universe gives people a glimpse of the work we are doing in Canada."

Mr. Gainor said the decision is especially disappointing because it shuts the door on a future generation of scientists. "We regret this move. The centre gives young people their first glimpse of the heavens, and we hope some of those young people will be inspired to pursue a career in science," he said. "And we need more scientists."

Research work at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory – a national historic site of Canada – will continue. The centrepiece of the site is the 1.8-metre Plaskett Telescope, which was briefly the largest in the world when it began operating in 1918.

Mr. Drouin said staff were told of the decision last week. Faced with a backlash from the public, the NRC is now reaching out to astronomy volunteers who could provide some limited public access to the facility. "There is a willingness to listen and discuss," he said.

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