Geek Speak: Raminder Singh Samra, resident astronomer at H.R. MacMillan Space Centre

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Raminder Singh Samra clearly gets excited about space. It’s a good thing the 23-year-old Burnaby resident is the resident astronomer at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver.

Located in Vanier Park, the astronomy museum includes the Gordon MacMillan Southam Observatory, which features a 50-centimetre reflecting telescope. The observatory is open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights, with admission by donation.

Born in Vancouver, Samra got his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of British Columbia in 2009. Now, as a master’s student in astronomy at UBC, he’s studying the dynamics of globular star clusters, which involves looking for a special type of black hole.

The Georgia Straight reached Samra by phone at the observatory.

How did you get into astronomy?

I’d always been interested in astronomy. Since I was a little kid, the first time I remember looking at the stars, I was always fascinated by them. From then on, I’ve always been excited. Then I chose to go to UBC just because it had the astronomy program. It’s a well-renowned astronomy program.

So, I did high school, then after high school went to UBC, and from there I completely loved it. I loved every bit of it, aside from the all-nighters and everything like that that you pull when doing your assignments. It’s very enjoyable.

What do you do at the observatory?

It’s supposed to be open on Friday, but Fridays have kind of been on a bit of a hiatus. That’s not the right word maybe. Basically, it’s staffed by volunteers from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. But they’ve been kind of on a shortage of volunteers for Friday nights, so we’ve been kind of iffy on Fridays a bit. But, starting the 30th, we’ll be going solid on Fridays as well, from now on. Saturdays have been pretty solid for the last few years actually.

So, you want to come Fridays and Saturdays from 8 to midnight. It’s best to come if it’s clear. There’s no point in trying to wander in, if you’re from far away, and come and it’s cloudy. So, it’s pretty good from 8 to midnight. Of course, in the summertime, the sun doesn’t set till 9. So, I would recommend slightly after 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock. But, anytime people can make it, there’s still stuff they can see, even when the sun is up.

What can the public do at the observatory?

When they come, they can ask astronomy-related questions, because I’m usually there and there’s a couple of other volunteers that are fairly knowledgeable in astronomy as well. You can look at the nighttime sky through a large telescope, and lots of people haven’t seen a telescope like this. It’s one of the largest ones around here in Vancouver for public viewing. I think there’s a larger one in Victoria, but it’s not really public. It’s a bit more for research.

It’s a terrible location, literally, because we’re right beside downtown. But it’s the best location for bringing people. We could have built it on a mountain far away, and no one would have come.

What do you think of Simon Fraser University’s plan to build an observatory on Burnaby Mountain?

I think it’d be great if they could have one. Right now, UBC doesn’t have a working observatory for the next couple of years. That building got torn down, and right now I think they’re pretty much out of an observatory. It’d be nice if they could have one there. I think it’d be great. SFU doesn’t really have an astronomy degree program, so hopefully this will attract more students into astronomy and then they can develop something out of that. But I think it’d be great. It’s $2 million and you’re up on top of a large mountain. It’s a decent place to put one. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere great, because we’re still in Vancouver. We still have all these cloudy nights. I think it’s a good place though.

What’s the best way to see the upcoming Perseid meteor shower?

That meteor shower, it’s the 12th and 13th of August. The best time to see it is between midnight and right before dawn or before twilight, because when twilight comes you’re starting to lose a bit of the fainter meteors.

Literally, you want to be as far away from city lights as possible. You don’t need a telescope. You don’t need a pair of binoculars. You just want to be far away from city lights, and you just want to be comfortable. So, maybe bug repellent is all you need.

There’s a good place. I was looking it up on-line today. It’s a place called McDonald Park. If you want to go there, it’s close to Abbotsford, on the way to Chilliwack....I was there a few years ago, and it was pretty good. There’s a bit of mountains surrounding the area, so you don’t have much light coming from Vancouver or the highway, and you can see the Milky Way. I would recommend you going anywhere that you can see the Milky Way. If you can see the Milky Way, you’ll definitely see more meteors, just because it’s a lot fainter.

The other thing with this year is that there’s no moon that’s going to influence. It’s a crescent moon, but by midnight the moon will set. The moon just ruins everything. Last year, it ruined a lot of things.

What’s the most interesting thing to you about space?

It’s the universe. It’s the vastness, the size of it. It’s pretty much incomprehensible to our minds, the size of it. How everything just works is amazing. Physics is cool. I guess there’s that aspect—how big it is, how unfathomable.

Also, it’s important to study it, for a couple of reasons. One reason is astronomy provides us with an insurance policy in a way. This comet that’s responsible for these meteors—it’s called Swift-Tuttle—it’s been called the biggest threat to humanity. There’s a possibility that it can crash with the Earth. The possibility is one in a hundred million or something like that every time it passes the Earth. But that’s still fairly high. If it was to hit the Earth, its impact would be about 27 times more devastating than what killed the dinosaurs. So, it’s nothing that we should just take lightly. You should definitely monitor this comet. It does cross the Earth’s orbit. But it’s got a 130-year orbit, so it doesn’t happen all the time. So, astronomy provides us with an insurance policy. I think that’s really cool.

Another thing is it’s our future. Space is our future, as a species. Humans, we’re pretty much filling the Earth up, and we’ll have to colonize space and nearby planets. Not in the short future, but hundreds of years from now we will definitely have colonies on the moon, in space, potentially Mars someday as well. So, it’s our future, and studying it is putting up groundwork for the future.

Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.

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