April 27, 1978, was an important date for astronomy in Québec. That evening, with the temperature at minus 11 °C, Québec astronomers used the telescope on the Mont Mégantic Observatory for the first time, what’s called the first light. That was the start of a wonderful adventure, which continues to this day.
The birth of professional astronomy in Québec
The project for a major astronomical observatory in Québec got under way in the early 1970s. At that time, professional astronomy was taking its infancies in the province. A small group of astronomers from Université de Montréal got together with physicists from Université Laval to persuade the provincial and federal governments to fund the construction of a world-class telescope. After lengthy discussions, the project was agreed to in 1976.
Selection of the site was guided by the following criteria: a spot to be located in Québec; in an area fairly easy to access; far from city lights; and the darkness of whose sky seemed assured for a number of years. The astronomers’ choice settled on Mont Mégantic, a mountain in the Eastern Townships that reaches 1,111 meters in height and is situated 200 kilometers from Montréal and Québec City.
Construction of the Observatory
Construction began in August 1977, winding up in April of the next year. Although observation work got under way on May 6, 1978, the Observatory was inaugurated only on the following September 16.
The Mont Mégantic Observatory telescope is the fourth biggest in Canada and the biggest in eastern North America. It’s a Ritchey-Chrétien type optical telescope, whose primary mirror has a diameter of 1.6 meters. It was built by Perkin-Elmer, the same company that manufactured the Hubble Space Telescope. The primary mirror has a mass of one ton, while the telescope’s total mass is four tons. It’s crowned by a dome nine meters in diameter.
The Observatory is the property of Université de Montréal and is administered jointly by it and Université Laval.
Mission of the Observatory
The mission of the Mont Mégantic Observatory is to train astronomers, to promote university-level teaching in astronomy, to supply quality equipment to astronomers and to foster the development of astronomy in Québec.
Over the 40 years of its existence, the Mont Mégantic Observatory has trained numerous Québec astronomers, including the humble writer of these words. I recall with considerable pleasure and emotion the many nights I spent there. Today the Observatory is not just an observation instrument, it’s also a symbol of success anchored in the culture of astronomers both professional and amateur. I raise my glass and wish the Observatory a long life.