Tracking the universe for 40 years

David Gray likely wouldn’t mind being referred to as having his head in the stars.

Elginfield Observatory director David Gray has been one of the main tenants of the facility, about to celebrate 40 years.

The telescope used at the Elginfield Observatory has one of the best spectrographs in order to study the physics of stars.

The professor emeritus (Physics & Astronomy) has been doing exactly that since coming to Western more than 40 years ago and has been one of the main tenants at the university’s Elginfield Observatory, where he is director.

Located a 15-minute drive north of London in rolling hills and surrounded by farm fields, the observatory is preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. It was located in an area where light from the city was unlikely to interfere with observations.

Quietly, the observatory continues to offer professors and graduate students an opportunity to look to the heavens in the pursuit of knowledge.

“We have a strong planetary and meteorite group here,” says Gray, noting the observatory is in use almost every night, with more opportune viewing coming in the summer months.

“Over the years, a rather large number of students have used the facility and learned how to do telescope work. Most grads are working on their thesis data acquisition.”

Although the 1.2 metre aperture of the telescope is modest, Gray says the facility has one of the best high-resolution spectrographs around in order to study the physics of bright stars – his main area of interest.

“There are so many different kinds of stars,” says Gray, who can measure the movement of the stars down to a few metres per second. “I want to know what’s going on with the physics of the stars. Why are some cooler and some hotter? How is the light that comes to us different with every star.”

Built for $480,000 in 1969, Gray says it would easily cost close to $5 million today. While 40 years may make it seem like out-of-date technology, Gray says there is “easily another 50 years” of life left in the telescope.

While a few adjustments and repairs have been made from time to time – such as $100,000 for a new primary mirror in 1988 – Gray says the biggest change in the almost 40 years he has been part of the observatory is the amount of data he can now create.

“I’m swamped with data,” he laughs. “It’s got to be 1,000 fold more than when I first began here. It does makes my research a lot more fun.”

There are also several associated programs at the site that do not use the telescope, such as optical intensified-camera observations of meteor trajectories, a kilometre acoustic ‘big ear’ for meteor work, a modern seismograph and some bird and ecological studies.