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From stargazing to navel-gazing: Astronomers feud over historic observatory

Paul Mortfield, Chair of the Observatory Committee Toronto Centre and Ralph Chou, President of the Astronomical Society of Canada Toronto Centre, look up at the telescope inside David Dunlap Observatory on June 21, 2009.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

Broken friendships. Public feuding. Fiercely emotional accusations.

Rarely has a telescope caused as much angst as the 74-inch reflector model inside the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill, where a group of displeased astronomers - including the man who discovered black holes using the Dunlap telescope - is trying to prevent the observatory from reopening later this week.

After being shuttered for a year, the historic observatory is finally slated to reopen July 18 under the care of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Toronto branch, a 500-strong group of amateur and professional astronomers who have leased the building since April.

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The society plans to eventually hold public-education programs and community events, in addition to tours where people can peek through Canada's largest optical telescope.

But a group calling itself the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders, whose members include astronomer Tom Bolton, famed for discovering black holes, have asked the mayor of Richmond Hill to intervene to stop it.

The Defenders have no problem allowing public access, but they are vehemently opposed to the RASC's stewardship of the building and its 74-year-old telescope. They say the telescope is a precious piece of Canadian heritage and should be operated by expert astronomers, not the RASC.

"Our concern has always been that the RASC members aren't qualified to be handling a research instrument," said Defender member Ian Shelton, an astronomer famed for discovering the first modern supernova visible to the naked eye. "If they screw up the telescope, they've destroyed a national heritage site ... they are not professional astronomers."

For Heide DeBond, the telescope operator for eight years, the task requires care and expertise beyond the RASC's capabilities. She remembers her own vigorous training and becoming so in sync with the telescope that even the slightest change in motor whirring would raise her alarm. "It would normally take two or three months of intensive training, night after night after night, until [telescope operators]could work on their own," Ms. DeBond said. "This is not a toy."

The Dunlap observatory has been closed since July, 2008, when the University of Toronto stoked controversy by selling the building and its surrounding 77-hectare property. The David Dunlap lands were donated by Jessie Donalda Dunlap in honour of her husband, an amateur astronomer. When it opened in 1935, she envisioned it becoming a world-class research centre and tool for public education. In addition to Dr. Bolton's discovery, the observatory has figured prominently in the work of other esteemed astronomers, including Helen Hogg, an international expert on globular star clusters, and Sidney van den Bergh, who devised a new classification system for galaxies.

When the university announced it was selling the property, it provoked a flurry of protest from astronomers and area residents. It was at this point that the Defenders formed; today, their e-mail list has about 700 people, said chairperson Karen Cilevitz.

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The observatory site was eventually bought by property developers, Metrus Development, which advertised for an astronomy group to operate the observatory. Both the Defenders and RASC expressed interest.

But talks with the former quickly broke down. According to the Defenders, they were alarmed when Metrus asked them to sign non-disclosure agreements prior to touring the site. "It's insane," Dr. Shelton said. "This is all about honesty and integrity within my teaching and so on."

But Metrus said that while non-disclosure agreements were initially floated as a possibility, the idea was quickly dropped. The company says the Defenders failed to propose a business plan, unlike the RASC. "We are confused about what their goal is with respect to the telescope," said Michael Pozzebon, a Metrus project manager. "From our perspective, the RASC is the best organization to fill this void."

Relations between the Defenders and RASC have also turned acrimonious. Dr. Shelton and Dr. Bolton have revoked their affiliations with the astronomical society, and neither are speaking with its Toronto president, Ralph Chou, a long-time friend to both scientists.

The Defenders have made public attacks against the RASC, recently accusing the group of contaminating the observatory during a repainting. They also want heritage status for the entire Dunlap property - something the RASC has not made a priority - and have lobbied Ottawa for an increased conservation designation.

The Conservation Review Board has already recommended that 80 per cent of the Dunlap lands be given heritage designation and recently, Heritage Canada included the property on its list of top 10 endangered sites.

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But the RASC denies all the Defenders' accusations and say they have only the observatory's best interests at heart. "They even complained to Richmond Hill town council that they heard a vacuum in the observatory. Yeah, we're running a vacuum to clean up. So what?" said Paul Mortfield, an RASC member and the observatory's chair. "Why aren't they happy? We're taking every step to operate correctly ... and be respectful of the heritage."

Mr. Mortfield said the Defenders have underestimated society members, many of whom are astronomy professors at universities. "We have people who've operated [the Dunlap]telescope before and operated bigger telescopes around the planet."

He said RASC members are being trained by Archie de Ridder, who has worked at the observatory for 42 years and trained many of its telescope operators, including Ms. DeBond.

And while the Defenders say they won't stop trying to block the RASC from using the telescope, the observatory looks set to reopen as planned.

David Dunlap, grandson of the original benefactor, is just relieved the facility is still standing. He said its continued role in research and education is exactly what his grandmother intended. "I think it's absolutely a win-win situation," Mr. Dunlap said. "The original vision of my grandmother has certainly been achieved."

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