Recent News

January 29, 2024

Image of Dave Lane speaking at a podium

The Burke-Gaffney Observatory is so thrilled that David Lane (pictured on the left), former Astronomy Technician and Director Emeritus of the BGO, was honoured at Saint Mary's University's January 2024 convocation ceremony with a Doctor of Science, honoris causa. Read more about Dave Lane here and find the details of his honourary degree here, on SMU's website.

The BGO would not be the successful, accessible, and busy Observatory that it is today without the work of this single individual over the last thirty years. We continue to be beyond grateful for his work and know that he was so deserving of this honour.

Congratulations, Dave!

June 15, 2023

BGO is excited to announce support for Mastodon! Users of the social media platform Mastodon can interact with the BGO on its account at Support for Mastodon comes as the future the Twitter interface is uncertain. Mastodon is open-source and free of corporate control and without advertising! Observers can request authorization from Mastodon accounts. If an observer would like to switch their main interface to Mastodon, use the #human command or contact the BGO by email

April 27, 2023

The BGO has successfully completed another academic year with a busy Fall 2022 term and a busy Winter 2023 term. More tours, new #commands, social interfaces, and perhaps some more are on the way in the future. 

November 5, 2022

The Burke-Gaffney Observatory is featured in the Saint Mary's University 2022 Report to the Community, find it here! The text of the article is reproduced below:

A quick 22-storey elevator ride is all it takes to be transported from the heart of a bustling campus into another galaxy at the Burke-Gaffney Observatory. Currently celebrating 50 years in operation, the observatory recently welcomed a new management team in Dr. Vincent Hénault-Brunet and Tiffany Fields BSc’17 MSc’19. Operating one of two professional-grade telescopes in Atlantic Canada, this duo is steadfast in fulfilling their mission to provide astronomy and astrophysics education, research and outreach to communities locally and worldwide. 

“We are incredibly lucky to have the Burke-Gaffney Observatory here on campus,” says Fields. “It allows students to participate in science outreach and it also allows our community to experience the universe here at Saint Mary’s.”  

Fields has always felt the gravitational pull of the observatory. During her time as a student at Saint Mary’s, she worked at the observatory before becoming its technician. Similar to her own experience, she wants to give students the opportunity to learn how to use the state-of-the-art observational astronomy equipment with the hopes of preparing them for careers in astronomy and data science. Dr. Hénault-Brunet agrees.

"For generations, Nova Scotians have been enlightened by the universe after a visit to the Burke-Gaffney Observatory," he says. "We also know students come to study astronomy and astrophysics at Saint Mary's because of our observatory." 

Sitting atop the Loyola building for half a century, the Burke-Gaffney Observatory has celebrated many milestones and continues to look to the future. The observatory is the location where the first supernova was discovered and continues to sit high in the sky as a beacon of generosity and the pursuit of a better understanding of our universe. 

Did you know? The Burke-Gaffney Observatory has allowed many to explore the universe thanks to the generosity of our supporters, including Dr. Ralph Medjuck LLD’13, whose philanthropic gift in 2014 helped upgrade the telescope.


Image inside the Burke-Gaffney Observatory dome with white ceilings and blue coloured walls. The white and black telescope is being pointed to by Tiffany Fields, Astronomy Technician, wearing yellow and Dr. Vincent Henault-Brunet looks onward as well, wearing white.

September 1, 2022

We celebrated the BGO's 50th anniversary with friends and staff of the BGO, past and present, on September 1, 2022 at SMU. Incredibly, we even had some clear skies for observing after the event! At the event, BGO Director Emeritus Dave Lane spoke about the history of the Observatory.

May 25, 2022

The new Observatory Technician and Director are hard at work to bring guests back to the Burke-Gaffney Observatory! The BGO has recently restarted private group tours and just this past weekend (May 20-22) we ran our first public open house since early 2020! With new tour guides and new volunteers, we welcomed 15 enthusiastic guests on a clear Friday night. We're excited to continue many more public open houses into the future! You can reserve tickets here on our website. 

February 10, 2022

Recently, the Burke-Gaffney Observatory passed its 50th anniversary! In late January 1992, the Burke-Gaffney Observatory was officially opened. Given current COVID restrictions we plan to celebrate this milestone later in the year - stay tuned!

Coincident with this anniversary, a significant capital investment was made to the observatory's equipment - a new mount (see the image below) - the Planewave L600 - replaced the 50-year-old Ealing mount in December and was fully commissioned by early January. The new mount will significantly improve the overall performance of the observatory. This is because:

  • its slew speed is about 40 times faster than the old mount
  • its sky pointing accuracy is much better, and
  • it tracks the sky much better allowing for longer exposures and better quality images

We have other news to share:

  • David Lane retired from SMU at the end of 2021 after being the observatory's technician for 29 years and its director for about half of that time. Dave is presently working part time keeping the observatory operating for winter classes and soon will be training and orienting his replacement.
  • We have a new Observatory Director: Dr. Vincent Henault-Brunet
  • We will also soon be welcoming a new Observatory Technician: Tiffany Fields

March 15, 2020

The university, as part of its COVID-19 virus response, has cancelled all university events on campus until further notice This means the observatory's public programs are suspended!

Current Robotic Telescope Observer News

You can find current news and updates for the Robotic Telescope here.

BGO Images Picked by Sky and Telescope

BGO observer, Hal Heaton (@SonoranSkies) has been slowly building a gallery of BGO images on the Sky and Telescope website - Bravo! These images are picked by the magazine's editors. Hal is a retired scientist and system performance analyst at Johns Hopkins Advanced Phyics Lab based in Maryland. He has been a BGO observer for nearly two years.

Highlights of 2017

Since the 2017 year is now over, I thought I'd summarize some highlights and statistics of a very busy and productive year at the BGO!

  • 28 Monday night Group Tours were completed (usually 15-25 people). These were all done by me.
  • 29 Friday Public Open Houses were scheduled - due to bad weather only 10 events actually took place (tickets for these events are limited at 24 people and are in high demand, often gone within a few minutes of being posted). Tour leads were Tiffany Fields, Hannah Ehler, and Chris Cooke and assisted by many of the grad students.
  • 20 (recorded) media interviews with me about various topics during the year for radio, television, and web/print media. This now includes a monthly hour long slot on 95.7 Radio (Rick Howe's Science Files). 
  • 1,949 robotic observations were completed during 135 nights of operation, the shortest being a snapshot of the Moon and the longest being several hour time-series observations of extra-solar planets!
  • 447 "observers" are now authorized to use it. 140 unique observers were active during the year.
  • It was out of service for 50 nights per year - this is when the director is out of town (vacation, long weekends, etc.) and cannot respond to events which could affect the safety of the equipment. If these nights are considered, the potential nights increases to 156.
  • SMU course usage: ASTR1001 (Winter and Fall), ASTR1100 (Winter), ASTR2400 (Winter), ASTR2100 (Fall). This comprised a combination of both robotic imaging and in person observing (typically staffed Tues/Weds/Thurs evenings during the Fall and Winter terms). Telescope operators included Tiffany Fields, John Read, and Mitch Young.
  • Robotic software development has been on-going during the year and many new features have been released during the year. These include:
    • Image processing by social media (unique in the world so far as I know), which among many other operations allows colour imaging with no special software
    • New Facebook Messenger observer interface
    • Improved management tools (eg. observer groups, account expiration, observer management by social media)
    • Timed observations (program precisely when an observation take place - allowed for exoplanet observations)
    • All detailed observation and processing logs are now publicly posted to the website
    • Improvements to reliability, observation quality, error handling and recovery, etc
  • The robotic telescope was used by a few high school astronomy classes - a new edition this year is the class of former student and now teacher Andrea Misner in Winnipeg. There is good potential here, but work is required to make this happen.
  • The observatory is active in several research projects, for example:
    • Nightly observations are taken of Tabby's Star, a star with very odd and as yet unexplained short and long term brightness variations. I have observed it since May of 2015 and we are in a position to observe it year round when many other locations cannot during the winter months. Our observations have been used in several papers, including two as co-author.
    • Time-series observations of SXPHE-type variable stars are taken by MUN retired astronomer Darlene English
    • Long term monitoring of several active galaxies are taken by researchers at University of Colorado Denver
    • Monitoring of long period variables are taken by a couple of observers from Europe
  • A second CCD camera was purchased, installed and is undergoing final software integration. It provides more filters, shorter exposures for bright objects, and camera redundancy in the event one camera fails and needs servicing. 
  • The stairwell lighting was improved - there is now switchable red or white lighting in the path between the control room and the roof top observation deck. This protects the night vision of observers and tour attendees when traversing the space.
  • In June, I attended the Robotic Telescopes, Student Research and Education (RTSRE) Conference in San Diego and presented a poster paper about the BGO. This was then turned into an accepted paper for the conference proceedings.

Many exciting new robotic telescope features are planned for 2018 - stay tuned!

Dave Lane, BGO Director

June 23, 2017: A poster-paper titled: A Robotic "Social Media" Controlled Observatory for Education and Research was displayed at the Robotic Telescopes, Student Research and Education Conference held in San Diego. A version of the poster reformatted for easy printing and reading is here.

June 12, 2017: Here are a few items of note:

  1. German amateur astronomer Jan Hattenbach as written a blog about Das Twitter-Teleskop (its in German but Google Translate does a good job of translating it into English).
  2. John Read has produced a couple of new robotic telescope tutorial videos about becoming authorized and making colour images. 
  3. Observatory Director Dave Lane, is off to two conferences in Ontario and San Diego, California later this week - he will be tweeting from the conferences. The first is the Symposium on Telescope Science and the second is Robotic Telescopes, Student Research and Education Conference - a poster paper on the BGO Robotic Telescope will be displayed there.

March 8, 2017: A major new robotic telescope feature is released today: social media-based image processing. See the documentation for how to use it and watch this video tutorial.

Highlights of 2016 (January 9, 2016)

Since the 2016 year is now over, I thought I'd summarize some highlights of what was the busiest and most exciting year in the observatory's 45 year history!

I am also pleased to report that the promised Facebook interface is now live for beta testing! This now means you can interact with it by public tweets, Twitter direct messages, email, and Facebook messaging!

Some highlights and statistics of the year:

  • 30 Monday night Group Tours were completed (usually 15-25 people)
  • 27 Friday Public Open Houses were scheduled - due to bad weather only about 12 events actually took place (tickets for these events are limited at 24 people and are typically gone within a couple of hours of being posted.
  • 22 (recorded) media interviews with me about various topics during the year.
  • Over 2,200 robotic observations were completed during 148 nights of operation, the shortest being a snapshot of the Moon and the longest being several hour time-series observations of variable stars! 310 "observers" are now authorized to use it
  • SMU course usage: ASTR1001, ASTR1100, ASTR2100, ASTR4200. This was a combination of both robotic imaging and in person observing (typically staffed Tues/Weds/Thurs evenings during the Fall and Winter terms).
  • Robotic software development has been on-going during the year and many, many new features have been released during the year, including time series observations, live image posting, Twitter direct message control, position and focus offsets, and better reliability. Many exciting new features are planned for 2017!
  • It is beginning to be used by high-school classes - notably French high school astronomy classes from New Brunswick (Spring and Fall semesters).
  • Thousands of variable star observations were taken automatically and submitted to the American Association of Variable Star Observers. It is also being used by several external researchers for research projects.
  • In March, Twitter recognized the observatory as one of 10 unique ways that Twitter was being used in Canada. Extensive local and national media coverage resulted.
  • In the summer, the SMU development department produced a professional donor "thank you" video for Dr. Medjuck that featured Luigi Gallo, Tiffany Fields, Martin Hellmich and Dave Lane. A shortened version for our own promotional use was created and is now featured on our home page.
  • This past fall, SMU recruiting chose the Twitter observatory as one of It All Starts Here items featuring Tiffany Fields.
  • In December, an image taken for and processed by student Martin Hellmich has apparently been chosen as the cover shot for the 2017 science faculty calendar.
  • In June, a special issue of Nova Notes, the local newsletter of the RASC contained an article about the observatory written by me and several others written by observatory users.
  • In August, the observatory was featured in the major US physics magazine: Physics Today. The article resulted from interviews with Tiffany Fields, Dave Chapman (RASC member) and myself.
  • In December, a new re-styled mobile-friendly and updated/expanded website was developed.

Dave Lane, BGO Director

News Coverage about the World's First Twitter-Controlled Observatory

Twitter tweets about us and takes notices what we are doing as part of their 10th anniversary. See this BLOG (March 21, 2016)

Quoted from the CBC News article:

The Burke-Gaffney Observatory (@smubgobs) at Saint Mary's University in Halifax takes space image requests from Twitter-users and tweets back pictures the next time there is a clear night.

"We couldn't find anything else like it," said Rory Capern, managing director of Twitter Canada, "We think it's a first in the world for an observatory to have a Twitter-controlled application and we think that's special."

Dave Lane, the observatory director as Saint Mary's University, developed the page.

"I think it's pretty cool. I suspect they found out about us because one of their employees in California stumbled upon our site a couple of weeks ago and he called it really cool so he must have shared it with his colleagues," said Lane.

Selected media coverage:

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