The Mont Mégantic Observatory is the subject of one artist's new exhibit. (Rémi Boucher)

New worlds in art and space

Sky News This Week: The Mont Mégantic Observatory is getting welcome publicity through a new art exhibition.

A unique collaboration between art and space will land at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, highlighting the work of the astronomers at the Mont Mégantic Observatory, situated on a mountain roughly 200 kilometres east of Montreal.

An exhibit called “Impermanencies,” featuring work from multidisciplinary artist Yann Pocreau, will show works inspired by the artist’s research stay at the 43-year-old observatory. Visitors can expect solar and lunar blueprints, photography and sculpture examining the link between astronomy and the act of questioning our observations.

The exhibit is welcome publicity for the observatory, which has just restarted limited on-site observations after closing down to the professionals due to the pandemic, said René Doyon, a Université de Montréal exoplanet researcher who leads infrared instrumentation projects at Mont Mégantic.

“The idea is you can live at the observatory for a while and experience it,” Doyon said of the residency program, which is also on hold due to the pandemic. “It’s a source of inspiration for their art. It’s a wide range of scientific investigations from photonics, to gases, to galaxy evolution — the whole universe.”

The Mont Mégantic Observatory was founded in 1978 and has the second-largest telescope in eastern Canada after the David Dunlap Observatory near Toronto. It is operated jointly by the Université de Montréal and Université Laval. It’s about midway through a five-year funding plan that Doyon and his colleagues are working to renew.

On site is a 1.6-metre Ritchey-Chrétien telescope that operates in an International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) dark sky preserve, allowing astronomers to do observations in excellent conditions. A lesser known fact about the observatory is that its researchers also construct and test astronomy instrumentation that has been used on site and at other observatories in other countries, such as in Chile.

One of Mont Mégantic’s major efforts these days is verifying exoplanet candidates spotted by telescopes, like the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission. TESS operates in an orbit in between our planet and the Moon, looking for Earth-sized or near Earth-sized planets at relatively close stars to us. Such short distances to these other worlds allows observatories all over the world to then confirm TESS observations.

“We recently confirmed a very interesting system — a super-Earth system,” Doyon said. Because Mont Mégantic was able to observe the “wobbles” the planet induces as it tugs the star, this allows astronomers to calculate the planetary mass. The observations of TESS, which looked at how much light the planet blocked from the star, give an estimate of size. Knowing the size and the mass allow astronomers to pin down the density, confirming this planet is likely a rocky one that could have oceans of water on its surface – although the result is very preliminary, Doyon cautioned.

Doyon said Mont Mégantic is hoping to welcome visitors again to the observatory within the next year, as health guidelines allow. In the meantime, staff have seen record attendance at regular webinars hosted for the public, showing an interest in astronomy that Doyon said his colleagues look forward to fostering again in-person, when it is safe to do so.

This biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.