A moonwalk through the Dunlap Institute’s second annual Planet Gazing Party

Public event enraptures U of T students, families with exploration of the universe

A moonwalk through the Dunlap Institute’s second annual Planet Gazing Party

“The cosmos is not nerdy; the cosmos is wonderful,” reads a line from my favourite show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which aptly captures my experience at the Dunlap Institute’s second annual Planet Gazing Party on September 14.

The public event enthralled thousands of Torontonians from different age groups, cultures, and sects of society who spent their Saturday evening learning more about the universe.

I was surprised as we lined around the back campus field, having not anticipated the energy and excitement that was in the air. Attendees included kids dressed as astronauts, U of T students who had just left Robarts Library, middle-aged couples on their weekly date nights, and grandparents accompanying their grandkids.

As the display opened in the evening, the telescopes were set up, the volunteers were ready, the moon globe was lit, and the trivia tables were abuzz. Trying to navigate, I came across a table showcasing small globes of Neptune, Mercury, the Moon, and Mars.

A volunteer from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada stood behind the globes. He excitedly explained to the kids the significance of the celestial bodies’ names. A question he posed while discussing the origins of these names stuck with me: “Would the names be different, had the Ancient Greeks been more powerful than the Romans?”

This question solidified my belief that educational events like these can engage people from a diverse range of interests and studies, as well as capture the imagination of kids in different ways — ones that can inspire them.

I eventually located the line for a star nebula. After a long wait, we saw a small green glint in the sky: a star seemingly expanding in space, on a journey to explode. This nebula, formed of dust and gas, experienced a beautiful death as we looked on.

After clicking a few pictures with the beautiful Moon globe, I headed to the star attraction of the night — Jupiter. As a giant ball of gas, encased in multiple rings of dense dust particles, this orb was surrounded by its breathtaking Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

The light from the moons was so breathtaking that it became an immediate highlight of my entire experience.

I made the conscious decision not to bombard you with facts in this article. The reason for that is simple: any science enthusiast can look up anything I could tell them. Instead, I tried to capture the marvel I experienced being amongst science enthusiasts and the ever-glorious cosmos.

We forget to appreciate the external and internal beauty of science, its reciprocal influence on culture, and its far reach — transcending any barrier other areas of life may harbour. Experiences like these from the Dunlap Institute are a must for anyone with a curiosity about our universe.

Dunlap Institute celebrates 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon landing

SpaceTime event featured talks, games to commemorate first spaceflight to land humans on the Moon

Dunlap Institute celebrates 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 Moon landing

On Saturday, July 20, U of T’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing with a SpaceTime event at the Daniels Spectrum.

The public event took place precisely 50 years to the day that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to take “one small step” onto the lunar surface at the climax of the Apollo 11 mission. Accordingly, the event focused on milestones in crewed space exploration, particularly surrounding the moons of our solar system.

The key attractions were three talks presented by experts in the space industry and academia. Interspersed between the talks were shorter anecdotes on spaceflight, chosen to augment the main features. Audience members were also able to participate through show-style games involving trivia and artwork.

The evening’s first speaker was William Maxwell King, a Master of Applied Science candidate at the U of T Institute for Aerospace Studies.

King’s presentation was titled “Spaceflight: A Human History,” and took the audience on a journey from the first rockets to the first Moon landing. Beginning with the origins of modern rocketry in the aftermath of World War II, the accompanying slideshow featured photographs of early rockets such as the United States’ Bumper 2, which was based on the German V-2 rocket. Similar pictures showed early Soviet successes in space before the triumph of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)’s Apollo program.

King selected a historical angle for his talk to showcase the incredible progress that human ingenuity made over a very short span of time.

“I think the lesson that I see in the Apollo legacy is that there is no challenge too great to tackle,” wrote King in an email to The Varsity. “Especially as our world faces catastrophic issues such as climate change, the Apollo program shows that we can indeed construct technological solutions to seemingly impossible problems.”

The second talk was thematically closer to the present day, as Dr. Jamil Shariff, an engineer at MDA Corporation, an aerospace company, presented the opportunities that the Moon will allow humanity in the near future.

In his talk titled “The Moon: A Gateway to the Future,” Shariff went into detail on the Lunar Gateway Project, an international collaboration to build a permanent space station in the moon’s orbit. Shariff particularly highlighted Deep Space Exploration Robotics (DSXR), which is Canada’s planned contribution to the endeavour. 

The Canadian Space Agency and MDA Corporation have developed concepts for a new pair of robotic arms — the large eXploration Large Arm (XLA), and small eXploration Dextrous Arm (XDA) — for use on the Lunar Gateway. The arms will be analogous follow-ups to the large Canadarm2 and small Dextre arms that currently service the International Space Station.

“The relatively careful, stepwise approach that NASA/ESA/CSA/Roscosmos are taking with the Lunar Gateway is to use ‘cislunar space’ (the space between the Earth and the Moon) as a proving ground,” wrote Shariff in an email to The Varsity.

“In this environment, the effects of long term habitation in space and increased radiation exposure can be studied and mitigated. Experience can be gained operating in a self-sustaining manner with no resupply from, and limited communication with, Earth.”

Information gained from studies along this vein could be applied to hypothetical missions such as crewed deep space explorations and Martian missions.

Closing the evening was Dr. Michael Reid, an Associate Professor and the Coordinator of Public Outreach and Education at the Dunlap Institute. Unlike the previous two speakers, Reid was less focused on the Moon, as a definite and singular, in favour of moons, as indefinite and plural concepts.

Reid’s talk, titled “To the Moons,” advocated for increased interest in the many natural satellites of our solar system, which number in the hundreds, instead of continued fixation on our eight neighbouring planets. Reid used slideshows of photographs to argue that exploration of nearby moons would provide a broader understanding of the possibilities that alien worlds hold. 

Saturn’s moon Titan was in particular focus during the presentation, given its thick atmosphere and liquid oceans of water and hydrocarbons. Combined with an atmospheric pressure and low gravity that is favourable to humans, Reid cited it as an example of a nearby celestial body which could prove agreeable to colonization.

“What I was trying to do was encourage people to think about places in the solar system we could go beyond planets,” said Reid in an interview with The Varsity. “Titan is one really good example, particularly if you’re thinking about human colonization or travel. But it’s only one, right? There are other places you could go depending on your motives. In general… the places in the solar system that might [possibly] be compatible with life are probably actually not planets.”

Despite the astronomical subject matter of the talks, the Dunlap Institute made it clear in advance and during the event that people of all educational backgrounds, including children, were welcome.

“I think the easiest way for laypeople to get involved with space exploration is to come to events like this,” wrote Master of Ceremonies Dr. Mubdi Rahman, a Project Scientist in the Dunlap Institute, in an email to The Varsity.

“[These events are opportunities] to actually chat with people actively working in the field, and there are often surprising collaborations that come out of these meetings.”

What does a scientist look like?

Seven U of T students discuss their passions and paths in science

What does a scientist look like?

W hat does a scientist look like? For many, the answer involves white lab coats, goggles, and beakers. Yet the people who pursue science are just as diverse as the field itself. Scientists can be activists, athletes, artists, or all of the above. Science can happen indoors or outdoors, under the night sky, or on the internet. Read about the journeys of seven student researchers at U of T.


“As a little girl, I saw a shooting star, and that made the night sky my favourite view. I thought a lot about what was up there and how cool it would be to go to space. This led to my studying physics and astronomy in undergrad and I have never looked back since then.

I currently seek to understand the early universe and how it transitioned to the stars and galaxies we see today. Specifically, what happened in the [epoch] of re-ionization. The epoch of re-ionization is a period in the universe’s history over which the matter in the universe ionizes again.

[My dad] taught me always to strive for more, that there could always be a way if there is a will. He taught me to never give up and to always ask questions. My curiosity in life and career comes from him.”

— Margaret Ikape, first-year PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics, email


 “I have always been interested in science, but also equally interested in the arts. I went to an arts middle school and high school where half my day was spent doing art and not academics. I spend a lot of my time outside of school engaging in the arts. I still consider myself an artist as much as I consider myself a scientist. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I can [be] both.

When I decided I wanted to go to university, I chose to study science since I liked it and was good at it. Moving into my later years of my undergrad I found that I was drawn to ecology courses, field courses, and also really liked the people I met in those classes.

I am interested in the pollutants, that comes from roads, such as road salt, and how it impacts the animals that live in nearby streams. I also study other pollutants that come from roads, such as metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and small bits of car tires (tire dust).”

— Rachel Giles, first-year Master’s in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, email

“Initially I had my heart set on being a professional dancer and veterinarian (a very practical dual career). Science had been my academic focus for some time, but it took several years after completing my BSc for me to realize that I passionately loved research and applying the scientific method to various questions of animal behaviour and cognition. I had this epiphany while I was juggling three jobs as a lab manager, veterinary assistant, and dog trainer. Out of all of those, I found research to be fulfilling and exciting and it was something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life.

I want to know how [dogs] perceive the world and how they process cues and information present in the environment. I am motivated by the hope that my research can possibly help change how people view dogs, give greater value to them through the recognition of their mental abilities and ultimately lead to greater wellbeing and better access rights in North America.”

— Julia Espinosa, second-year PhD in Cognitive Psychology, email

Julia Espinosa (left) and Madeline Pelgrim (right) work with dogs like Loki to determine animal behaviour. ASHIMA KAURA/THE VARSITY

“Julia Espinosa, the graduate student in my lab, has had the greatest influence on my career. She has been endlessly patient with me since we began working together in the fall of 2016, and has pushed me to advocate for myself and not be afraid to try something new. I would not be at this point in my career without her sage advice and constant confidence.

Like many other students, I had a bit of a rough transition into University in my first year. Adjusting to life away from home (my hometown is a 10 hour drive from Toronto) and everything that comes with living on your own for the first time caused my academics to suffer. When I first applied to join my lab, I was confident that I would not be accepted because of my marks. I am very thankful for my Principal Investigator — Dr. Buchsbaum — and the lab manager at the time — Kay Otsubo — for taking a chance on me and overlooking my performance first-year.”

— Madeline Pelgrim, fourth-year Bachelor’s in Psychology and Biology, email


“There are definitely a lot of challenges throughout a PhD. I would say the biggest one for me were the mental challenges at the early stage of my PhD. How do I keep being confident in front of the language barrier, failure experiments, competitions, and where is my direction for the future? Having been through such a mental struggling stage, I am now clearer of myself, and ready for unknowns.

I always want to help bring positive impacts to our future world. I like the discovery and innovation side of research studies and its potential impact on our better world. My research is to design advanced photo-responsive nanomaterials that can store solar energy into chemical energy by catalyzing the conversion of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to useful chemicals and fuels. It is a promising solution to reduce the usage of fossil fuels and global warming caused by greenhouse gas.”

— Yuchan Dong, fifth-year PhD in Materials Chemistry, email


“As a child while it was true that I was always curious about nature and the world around us — Asking questions like why is the sky blue? How are clouds formed? etc. It was only when I got older and started to understand ‘what is science? what are scientists? How is science performed?’ that I gained a tremendous passion for it.

This notion that with a few chemical reactions, chemists can ‘creatively’ and rationally generate a molecule which when administered to human can halt disease progression, pain and even extend life — was a very powerful catalyst for my interest in medicinal chemistry. My work mainly focuses on the development of novel small-molecules that specifically target disease-causing cellular components which have been shown to cause certain cancers.

I think as with any budding student of science, whether in graduate studies, professional programs or even out in the workforce, the biggest challenge is to become comfortable with and know how to effectively deal with failure and hardship. As a scientist, at times we learn more from failed experiments than successful ones.”

— Yasir S. Raouf, third-year PhD in Organic and Biological Chemistry, email


“I’ve been both playing sports competitively and going to school since I was six years old. Honestly, if I didn’t play water polo I don’t know what I would be doing in the evenings — I think I would just be sitting on my phone doing nothing. I love to represent Canada, and it’s a really exciting opportunity to do so on an international stage. Looking forward to the future, it would be an honour to represent Canada at the Olympic Games. U of T has opened so many doors for me, with research and athletics.

Initially I came to U of T and I wanted to do Genetics and Cell & Systems Biology — all that nitty gritty stuff. Then I took BIO230, and I was like this is not for me. I was trying to figure out a field where I could apply Life Science techniques, but without wet lab stuff. I had the opportunity to do an ROP [Research Opportunity Program] in Pascal Tyrrell’s lab — which is focused on medical imaging and statistics — and just fell in love with it.”

— Rachael Jaffe, third-year Bachelor’s in Global Health, Statistics, and Economics, spoken

The U of T astrophysicist toolbox

The Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics is a global leader in astrophysical instrumentation

The U of T astrophysicist toolbox

Astronomy has progressed incredibly in the centuries since Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, and Nicolaus Copernicus, and the equipment required by the professional stargazer today far exceeds the capabilities of their primitive telescopes.

Luckily for space scholars at the University of Toronto, the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics is at the forefront of astrophysical instrumentation development.

While it would take a textbook to explore all the dazzling devices devised in part or whole at U of T, what follows is a glimpse at the instumentation being worked on right now.

What is a telescope?

What many people call telescopes are rarely used for research nowadays. The technology used frequently by amateurs and enthusiasts in the familiar lens-and-mirror tubes are largely obsolete in academia.

Though there are exceptions, such telescopes are largely used by amateur astronomers and enthusiasts.

Information in nature travels in waves, and some of the most useful waves are found on the electromagnetic spectrum. We perceive waves in the middle of the spectrum as colours, while radio waves have longer wavelengths and gamma rays and X-rays have shorter wavelengths.

Detecting different kinds of waves with different kinds of telescopes provides different kinds of knowledge about the cosmos. For example, much like how Hollywood spies use infrared goggles to detect human heat, infrared telescopes can be used to detect the temperatures of celestial objects.

The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment

The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) is a telescope that detects extraterrestrial radio waves. Located at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in the southern mountains of British Columbia, CHIME is mapping half of the night sky out to a distance of billions of light years, the largest volume of space ever surveyed.

The ‘hydrogen’ part of the name refers to its search for traces of neutral hydrogen, measurement of which would do much to preciscely constrain exotic theories of dark energy.

Yet there have also been other uses for CHIME.

“We’ve picked up a few other science goals along the way, from monitoring pulsars to finding Fast Radio Bursts, which have really leveraged the power of this new telescope,” said Professor Keith Vanderlinde, a Dunlap faculty member collaborating on the project, in an email.

CHIME was first put into use in September 2017, but U of T’s contribution to the instrument’s development goes back further in time.

“U of T has been involved in CHIME from the beginning, helping to plan and design the project from the ground up,” added Vanderlinde.

“During construction, our team focused on the supercomputer backend that allows the CHIME to ‘see’ the sky, converting the incoming raw radio waves into meaningful image data — processing almost [1,000 gigabytes per second] of raw data down to something more manageable — and which sits at the nexus of the many projects, producing distinct streams of data for each of them. Now that things are mostly up and running, we’re neck-deep in the commissioning and analysis efforts, to make sure we understand what it is we’re measuring.”

Canadian Initiative for Radio Astronomy

Led by Dunlap Director Professor Bryan Gaensler, the Canadian Initiative for Radio Astronomy (CIRADA) is less an experiment in itself and more of a network of projects, looking to increase Canadian participation in three telescopes: CHIME, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder.

The objective of CIRADA is to give Canadian astrophysicists the tools necessary to convert the massive streams of raw data from the telescopes into easy-to-use catalogues and photographs so that scientists and members of the public can explore the data sets and contribute to discoveries.

Contributing to the VLA Sky Survey (VLASS), U of T is leading the charge with CIRADA by focusing on analyzing cosmic magnetism.

“The VLASS is allowing three types of experiments with radio waves: mapping the emission from black holes, looking for explosions, and studying cosmic magnetism,” explained Gaensler in an email to The Varsity.

“As part of CIRADA, the U of T team is taking the images coming out of VLASS, and converting them into maps of magnetism in space, a bit like the simple maps of magnetism you probably made in high school by sprinkling iron filings around a toy magnet.”


An example of a ‘classic’ telescope, the Dragonfly Telescope Array began with the simple idea of latching together a number of commercially available camera lenses.

The brainchild of Dunlap’s Professor Roberto Abraham, the array was originally commisioned in 2013 with three Canon 400-millimetre lenses, the same type used at events like the FIFA World Cup. Instead of viewing football, the array was placed side by side and pointed up at the night sky to look for galaxies.

Today, the array has grown to 48 lenses, each modified to remove unwanted light. It is the world’s largest array composed solely of refracting telescopes, in contrast to the more popular reflecting telescope.

While simpler in concept, Dragonfly is by no means less useful than its larger, more complex counterparts.

Its multiple lenses act as filters and are useful in detecting faint objects as the filters produce accurate images devoid of optical noise.

Earlier this year, the array discovered what appeared to be a galaxy devoid of dark matter, an element previously thought to be ubiquitous in all galaxies.

Gemini Infrared Multi-Object Spectrograph

Infrared astronomers are stargazers working at higher frequencies than radio, but still at lower frequencies than visible light.

The Gemini Infrared Multi-Object Spectrograph (GIRMOS) is U of T’s largest current contribution to the field of infrared astronomy.

Led by Dunlap’s Professor Suresh Sivanandam, GIRMOS is a spectrograph that separates the input it detects into its component wavelengths and records said components.

“GIRMOS is a one-of-a-kind scientific instrument specially designed to study very distant galaxies that are billions of light years away,” said Sivanandam in an email to The Varsity. “These galaxies are so small in the sky that we need to use cutting-edge optical technology, called adaptive optics, to get high resolution images of these objects. With GIRMOS, we will be able to study in detail how these galaxies look like and how they form their stars. This will help us piece together how our own galaxy formed.”

The project is based on data received by the Gemini Observatory, which has two telescopes in Hawaii and Cerro Pachon, Chile.

Despite the geographic distance, the project is a testament to Canadian ingenuity.

“GIRMOS is truly a Canadian project that has institutions that span coast-to-coast,” said Sivanandam. “It takes advantage of the well of scientific and technical expertise that exists within Canada to make this instrument a reality. This project is a pathfinder for future scientific instruments on the Thirty Meter Telescope, Canada’s next big telescope.”

Closer to home, Sivanandam also noted that “U of T has provided scientific leadership in many projects that make use of the Gemini Observatory, which has ranged from imaging planets around other solar systems to studying some of the galaxies of the early universe.”

South Pole Telescope 3G

Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is located atop the geographic south pole, the southernmost point on Earth. Its exotic locale guarantees some of the harshest conditions known to humanity, just short of outer space.

“From February to November each year, the South Pole is inaccessible due to the harsh weather. We have two scientists called ‘winter-overs’ that stay at the station during this period, and work hard to keep the telescope running in some of the most extreme weather on the planet,” said PhD student Matt Young in an email. “The sun disappears below the horizon for 6 months, leaving them in 24/7 darkness and temperatures around -60 degrees C.”

Originally built by the United States, the station is now home to an international collection of astrophysical instruments, including the aptly-named South Pole Telescope (SPT).

The SPT detects waves in a number of wavelengths ranging from microwaves to submillimeter waves. Since the telescope’s construction in 2006, a number of cameras have been used to record said detections. The newest of these cameras is the SPT-3G, a microwave camera, the detectors for which are tested and characterised right here at U of T.

Vanderlinde, former Dunlap Fellow Dr. Tyler Natoli, and Young have been U of T’s principal contributors to the SPT.

Young travelled to the south pole in the winter of 2017–2018 to aid with installing the SPT-3G and is excited about the potential information to be gleaned from the newest camera.

“[The SPT-3G] will allow us to observe the Cosmic Microwave Background, light emitted just after the Big Bang, in more detail than ever before. We currently have a detector here in Toronto that I’ll be taking down to the South Pole with me to install in the camera,” wrote Young.

A time-lapse of Supernova 1987A

PhD student Yvette Cendes models the aftermath of the supergiant star

A time-lapse of Supernova 1987A

Yvette Cendes, a PhD student in the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, used mathematical modeling to visualize a time-lapse of the aftermath of Supernova 1987A.

Based on existing quantitative data, the time-lapse observes the supernova’s shockwave — a powerful wave that causes a star to explode in space — from 1992–2017.

Since publishing her team’s findings in The Astrophysical Journal, Cendes has delivered several talks about Supernova 1987A.

The significance of the time-lapse

The team’s analyses show that the “expanding remnant” of the supernova is shaped like a three-dimensional torus, or donut, rather than a two-dimensional ring.

Cendes applied statistical and mathematical techniques to the time-lapse to show that the supernova produced a shockwave expanding outward and slamming into debris that ringed the original star before its demise.

As a result of the growing torus punching “through the ring of debris,” the supernova’s shockwave has accelerated, increasing in speed by some one thousand kilometres per second.

The team also found that the shockwave from the supernova models a classic shockwave system.

A principle similar to a shockwave can be seen when a rock creates ripples in a pond. In space, however, a shockwave operates on a much larger magnitude and causes a supernova to explode.

This explosion produces supernova remnants, which are seen in the donut-shape formation of Supernova 1987A.

The origins of Supernova 1987A

U of T astronomer Ian Shelton and telescope operator Oscar Duhalde discovered Supernova 1987A on February 24, 1987. The pair was the first to observe the death of the supergiant star and its resultant explosion from the Las Campanas Observatory in northern Chile.

Despite being 168,000 light-years — or 1.6 quintillion kilometres — away from Earth, Supernova 1987A has been the brightest supernova to appear in our skies since Kepler’s Supernova in 1604.

According to NASA, the supernova “blazed with the power of 100 million suns” for “several months following its discovery.”

While 1.6 quintillion kilometres might seem like a titanic distance, Supernova 1987A is “the closest supernova to us that we’ve observed since the invention of the telescope,” said Cendes in an interview with The Varsity.

This helps to explain Supernova 1987A’s brightness and why it is one of the most studied objects in astronomy.

The aftermath of Supernova 1987A

Under the supervision of U of T professor Bryan Gaensler, Cendes spent nine months analyzing data from 1992 to 2017, collected from a radio telescope called the CSIRO Australia Telescope Compact Array.

Cendes’ initial challenge was learning how to translate the raw radio data from the Compact Array into images, which she eventually presented in her time-lapse.

Since this was her first time using data from the Compact Array, Cendes began by replicating previously-published images that used data from the same telescope.

She then produced her own images by analyzing the datasets used, comparing them to the published images, and refining her technique until her images resembled the published ones.

After becoming proficient in data-to-image translation, Cendes analyzed the 25-year dataset from the radio telescope in full.

While previous researchers had analyzed parts of the dataset, Cendes said that she was “the first person to go back and really see this entire stretch of time.”

New planetarium in the works at UTSG

The world-class facility will provide unparalleled access to the cosmos

New planetarium in the works at UTSG

The Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics is planning to replace the current Astronomy & Astrophysics Building with a new structure that includes a planetarium, which could become a tourist and cultural centrepiece in Toronto. 

The proposed construction is at 50 St. George Street, where the facility is currently located. 

According to Raymond Carlberg, Chair of the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, the new planetarium will seat around 150 people, six times more than the 25-person capacity of the department’s current planetarium. Blueprints for the planetarium could be finalized as early as 2020.

The planetarium attracts students and the general public for its shows like the Grand Tour of the Cosmos and The Life and Death of Stars, which are usually led by U of T graduate students. 

However, the current theatre has limitations. 

It is not wheelchair-accessible, and requires patrons to plan early to avoid the dreaded ‘bad seats,’ where catching a glimpse of the stars comes with a side of neck tension. 

According to Carlberg, the new planetarium would also improve pedagogy.  

“In Canada, most of the planetariums are in things like the Ontario Science Centre — but they don’t have an academic use there,” said Carlberg. “We’re not looking to do what Ontario Science Centre does, which is orient it to the public at large. We’re interested in giving students the best possible education.” 

In addition to providing one-of-a-kind learning opportunities for their students, the department hopes that the new planetarium will be a forum for reconciliation and Indigenous education.  

“Indigenous people… have a sky lore of their own,” explained Carlberg. 

“We have a sky lore with our Greek and Roman constellations and they have theirs. In fact, there [are] several, for different native communities across North America because they each have their own stories. So that’s a thing we would like to do, is reach out to folks and to try to help them succeed within the University of Toronto.”

The department is now in the ‘idea stage’ of the design process. Since the current Astronomy & Astrophysics Building would have to be demolished to build the planetarium, there is discussion over other potential features of the building including an observatory, faculty offices, and teaching labs. 

Though details are sparse, the department hopes  that the new facility will be an architectural landmark whose purpose goes beyond the scope of astronomy, from visualizing climate data to exploring the neural networks of the human brain. 

The ultimate guide to watching meteor showers

Here’s how you can wish upon a shooting star this year

The ultimate guide to watching meteor showers

Despite being pieces of space debris, meteors put on a magnificent display when they enter Earth’s atmosphere, decorating the night sky with vivid colours of blues, greens, yellows and reds. Whether you are an avid meteor shower watcher or a first-time goer, here are tips to help you catch a better glimpse of Earth’s rocky visitors.

Where do I go?

Although this may come as a surprise, it is actually not very difficult to find a good location to view meteor showers. Just keep in mind the following points when hunting for your spot of the night:

Look for an open area like a field or a park. Steer clear of places where your view of the sky is obstructed by buildings, trees, or other tall objects.

Make sure it’s dark enough. City lights can be a huge distraction and take away from the visibility of the meteors. Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics Associate Professor Michael Reid recommends that you refrain from looking at your phone. “Your eyes take about ten minutes to fully adapt to darkness,” said Reid. “If you look at a cell phone screen or streetlight even briefly, you’ll degrade your night vision.”

How do I prepare?

You don’t need any fancy equipment to view this celestial event. However, the following tips can make your viewing experience more pleasant:

Grab a lawn chair. Keeping your eyes on the skies so you don’t miss a single second of stars shooting across the darkness requires a lot of upwards gazing. Bring a chair or a blanket to spread on the ground so you can do so in comfort.

Pack bug spray and a jacket. Summer nights spent outdoors entails mosquitoes and other little critters. Stay bite-free with bug spray and have a light jacket to throw on when it gets chilly.

Gather your friends. “Meteor watching requires patience, so it is a great chance to pick out constellations in the sky,” said Professor Raymond Carlberg, Chair of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Having your friends to share the moment can make wait times between meteor fly-bys a lot more entertaining. You could try to spot stars or play a round of astronomy trivia.

Check the weather. Nothing can be worse than a rainwstorm on the night you scheduled your outing, or the moon outshining all the meteors in your area. Be sure to check the weather and location of the moon prior to making your trip.

When is the next meteor shower?

Now that you’re ready to go, be on the lookout for more accurate predictions of the best times to catch each of these events. Meteor showers typically occur over the span of a couple of days, so if you miss the days listed below, try your luck another time. The International Meteor Organization also has a detailed calendar of upcoming meteor showers.

October 21 – peak for the Orionids showers

November 17 – peak for the Leonids showers

December 13 – peak for the Geminids showers

Happy meteor shower watching!

A day — or millennium — in the life of a star

PhD candidate Alysa Obertas hosts Life and Death of Stars planetarium show

A day — or millennium — in the life of a star

It is truly a shame that light pollution prevents Torontonians from gazing at the stars because, as Alysa Obertas demonstrates, they are some of the most beautiful objects in all of existence. Admittedly, stars being beautiful isn’t exactly news. But Obertas, a PhD candidate with U of T’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, breathes new life into this tired cliché in the brilliant planetarium show Life and Death of Stars.

Originally created by U of T astrophysicist and Outreach Coordinator of the Department of Mathematics Dr. Ilana MacDonald, the show is presented in the basement planetarium of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Building. Life and Death of Stars opens with a sweeping view of the Toronto skyline, familiarly devoid of stars and overwhelmingly polluted by the glaring city lights. Obertas soon shows us city dwellers what we’ve been missing by transforming a murky screen into a majestic illumination of the skies outside the city.

From there, the audience is brought on a voyage from the surface of our planet into the sprawling grounds of the cosmos. Moving from one celestial object to another, Obertas meticulously explains each astrophysical concept and fundamental law governing the birth, life, and death of stars. Notable curiosities like the red supergiant Betelgeuse and goldmine supernova SN1987A are given special attention, with their unusual traits fully exposed via high-resolution images on-screen, and a comprehensive commentary given by Obertas off-screen.

“One thing I hope audiences take away is that stars aren’t fixed they change and evolve throughout their lifetimes,” wrote Obertas in an email to The Varsity. “Even more incredible is that as stars evolve and eventually end their lives, they create heavier elements. This material gets mixed back into surrounding clouds of gas, which new stars and planets form out of. We wouldn’t be here on Earth if it weren’t for dead stars.”

It is important to note that the experience is not at all a tedious lecture. No physics foreknowledge is required; Obertas explains everything clearly, concisely, and without technobabble. In fact, portions of the presentation have little to do with astrophysics at all as they focus on constellations and what can be seen with the naked eye. Dazzling visuals that fill the room delight children and adults, alike. “I hope that people who are curious about science, space, and astronomy attend the shows and leave with a new perspective and appreciation for our place in the universe,” said Obertas. “You don’t need to be an expert to appreciate the cosmos we all share the night sky.”

Altogether, Obertas deftly weaves astronomy with entertainment to create an experience accessible for all educational backgrounds and recommendable for all ages. Obertas’ stunning visuals and eloquent descriptions are an excellent primer for anyone seeking a comfortable introduction to the cosmos. In both the literal and the metaphorical sense, the show is absolutely stellar.

The show is roughly an hour long and costs $10 per person. More information can be found here.